AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Report: Providing pricey Hepatitis C cure to prison inmates will pay off

Don't let Mark die, the petition says. The Georgia prison inmate, diagnosed with Hepatitic C when he entered prison in 2010, has cirrhosis of the liver and needs treatment the prison won't provide him, the petition claims.

Other Georgia inmates have tried suing the Department of Corrections in recent years for Hepatitis C treatment. Courts have sided with DOC, though. And only a relative handful of the 55,000 state prison inmates have received Hepatitis C treatment.

But the development of expensive new medications that can cure the disease is increasing pressure on correctional facilities to screen and treat inmates for the disease, which is a leading cause of liver cancer. Lawsuits demanding the costly miracle drugs are pending in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Now, a new report by researchers at Emory, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Pittsburgh says that screening prison inmates for the infection and treating those who test positive would save money over the long run for society as a whole.

"There is real potential to reduce the number of cases across the U.S.," said study co-author Anne Spaulding, associate professor of epidemiology at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health.

In a report published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine , the researchers note that only about 1 percent of the general U.S. population is infected. By stopping Hepatitis C in prison, health officials can prevent further transmission in the community.

Many states have deemed the treatment too expensive. With an estimated 17 percent of all prison inmates infected and drugs costing as much as $84,000 per person, taxpayers could face hefty bills treating those whose disease has reached advanced stages.

To evaluate both the health and economic benefits of screening and treating for the disease, the researchers, led by Dr. Tianhua He, used a computer simulation model of four screening strategies. The model simulated the dynamics of HCV disease among inmates and the general population and factors such as progression of the disease, transmission to uninfected individuals and the movement of inmates in and out of prison. The resulting benefits included cost savings from the reduction of future treatment needs and the prevention of both HCV-related outcomes among infected inmates and further transmission in the community.





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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.