After years of advocating for Vermont prisoners to have access to life-saving medication for Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), the ACLU of Vermont and the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, with cooperating counsel James Valente, yesterday filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state’s refusal to treat hundreds of inmates diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C. The case was filed in the federal district court in Burlington on behalf of two Vermont prisoners, Richard West and Joseph Bruyette, who seek to represent a class of inmates who have been or will be denied treatment without medical justification.
The Plaintiffs assert the Agency of Human Services (AHS), Department of Corrections (DOC), and Centurion of Vermont’s systematic denial of the HCV cure to prisoners diagnosed with chronic HCV violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are asking the court to end the Defendants’ policy of categorically denying effective, efficient, and medically appropriate HCV treatment.
ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz: “State officials are purposefully withholding the cure for Hepatitis C from hundreds of Vermont inmates, many of whom would have received it long ago if they were not imprisoned. This is not only inhumane and short-sighted—it is unconstitutional. Vermont cannot rely on cost considerations to try to justify unlawful treatment of the people in its care and custody.”
Hepatitis C is a progressive infectious disease—identified by the CDC as the deadliest infectious disease in America—that if left untreated is likely to cause a variety of medical symptoms, including permanent liver damage, and in some cases, cancer and death. More than five years ago, the FDA approved breakthrough medication with few side effects that effectively cures the disease.
After years of advocacy by the Vermont Coalition for Access to HCV Treatment, of which the ACLU of Vermont is a member, in 2018 DOC began to provide the cure to some inmates on a more regular basis, but still denied it to the vast majority because of the associated expense. Prior to this lawsuit, Coalition members appealed to DOC to stop denying access to the HCV cure to the hundreds of other Vermont inmates who were categorically excluded. DOC refused and to date has only treated about one-fifth of the more than 300 people with chronic Hepatitis C it has identified.
Kevin Costello is the Director of Litigation for the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School: “Hepatitis C is responsible for more deaths in the United States than any other infectious disease by a mile. There is no medical reason to actively prevent hundreds of incarcerated people from receiving curative medications for Hepatitis C. In fact, the refusal to treat prisoners needlessly prolongs suffering and heightens the risk of serious health problems for a group of people who are completely at the mercy of the State of Vermont to provide their health care.”
Similar lawsuits challenging denial of Hepatitis C treatment to individuals in state custody have been won or favorably settled by ACLU affiliates and other organizations in several states, including Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri and others, with more cases pending in additional states.
The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Vermont, Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, and the law firm of Costello, Valente & Gentry.