Professor Wins Medical Treatment for Prisoner With Hepatitis C

Rutherglen Sued on Prisoner’s Behalf, Pulled Together Expert Team
George Rutherglen

George Rutherglen is the John Barbee Minor Distinguished Professor of Law.

August 24, 2018

A prisoner of the Virginia Department of Corrections will now receive potentially life-saving treatment for hepatitis C, thanks to the efforts of University of Virginia School of Law professor George Rutherglen and the team he assembled.

In a lawsuit settled Monday, the department agreed to provide treatment to Elmo Augustus Reid, a 62-year-old inmate at the Buckingham Correctional Center.

The professor enlisted the help of infectious disease expert Dr. Rebecca Dillingham of the UVA School of Medicine and the legal resources of Fishwick and Associates in Roanoke, Virginia, in preparing the case.

Hepatitis C is prolific in prisons nationwide. As many as 60 percent of prisoners in the state suffer from the disease, according to an estimate provided by medical authorities to the Virginia General Assembly.

“This individual lawsuit does not require treatment of other prisoners, but like many similar lawsuits around the country, it sets a precedent that supports further efforts to gain treatment,” Rutherglen said.

New direct-acting antiviral drugs are highly effective in treating the disease, but their expense has been prohibitive. The drugs cost between $20,000 and $50,000 for a single course of treatment (one pill a day for eight to 12 weeks).

Left without treatment, however, hepatitis C can be debilitating — and may result in liver cancer or cirrhosis that is fatal.

“The Virginia Department of Corrections has taken steps to address this epidemic, but treatment has been sporadic and expensive,” Rutherglen said. “These steps certainly go in the right direction, but without a large increase in resources and in the number of treated inmates, it is doubtful that the spread of this epidemic within the prison system will stop.”

Refusal of treatment for serious medical needs is “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment, according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

But a plaintiff must demonstrate deliberate indifference in order to win in court, Rutherglen said. The settlement refers the plaintiff for treatment by the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System without any further need to clear legal hurdles. Prison officials agreed to settle the case after their motion for summary judgment was denied earlier this month.

Reid was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2013, and he received treatment for the disease with previously available medicines. By 2014, the treatments ended, but the disease remained.

“The new drugs are far more effective, with many fewer side effects than the drugs with which Reid initially was treated,” Rutherglen said.

The professor, whose expertise includes federal courts and civil procedure, likened the hepatitis C epidemic to the opioid crisis. He said the problem has been made worse by the relative invisibility of imprisoned persons, and their struggles, once they are behind bars.

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