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Minnesota Prisoners Win Access to New Hepatitis C Medications

Minnesota prisoners have prevailed in a class-action lawsuit requiring the Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide highly effective but costly direct-acting antiviral (DAA) drugs to treat hepatitis C infections.

Five state prisoners, represented by attorneys Andrew H. Mohring, Peter J. Nickitas and Carl Peter Erlinder, filed suit in 2015 because hep C testing for prisoners was not required by the DOC and treatment was intermittent. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.22]. 

DAAs, which cost between $26,000 and $100,000 per patient for the 12-week treatment regimen, have been proven to have limited side effects and a cure rate of over 90 percent. Recent lawsuits nationwide – repeatedly reported in Prison Legal News – contend that prison medical guidelines conflict with the standard of care requiring treatment of all patients, with limited exceptions, using the most effective drugs available.

U.S. District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz granted preliminary approval of a settlement in the case in March 2019, and ordered the Minnesota DOC to screen all prisoners for hep C and provide DAAs for any prisoner in advanced stages of the disease or who have hep C in conjunction with certain other medical conditions.

The settlement agreement expands the number of prisoners with hep C who will receive the DAA treatment regimen, to include those with F-1 through F-4 levels and those at F-0 levels who have concurrent conditions of HIV, diabetes or hepatitis B. Prisoners who are denied treatment can reapply every six months. Those with non-concurrent conditions at the F-0 level will receive treatment after serving 16 months.

Judge Schiltz noted the DOC’s prior hep C policy basically meant prisoners could not receive treatment until they suffered liver damage.

Prison officials said they had already been treating some prisoners in advanced stages of hep C with DAA drugs. They added they had spent $1.6 million over a nine-month period to provide treatment to 100 prisoners. Providing DAAs to all infected prisoners would “eclipse some correctional systems’ budgets by a factor of three,” noted Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Fodness. An estimated 1,213 to 3,539 Minnesota prisoners have hep C, though the actual number is unknown since intake testing had not been conducted.

“Hepatitis is a slow progressing condition that can cause liver disease,” observed DOC spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald. “While the Department has been providing medically appropriate care to offenders who have chronic hepatitis, we will change our practice – even if they have not developed liver disease.”

No monetary damages were awarded in the class-action case, only attorneys’ fees of $325,000 plus $41,000 in litigation costs. 

“The settlement will provide a cure to all prisoners at every stage of progression,” attorney Andrew Mohring said. “It puts Minnesota in the forefront of treatment and care of its prisoners who have chronic Hepatitis C.” 

Final approval of the settlement by the district court remained pending as of June 2019. See: Ligons v. Minnesota Dep’t of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. MN), Case No. 0:15-cv-02210-PJS-BRT.

Minnesota is one of a growing number of states that have settled lawsuits over prisoners’ access to DAA medications. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.44]. 



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Related legal case

Ligons v. Minnesota Dep’t of Corrections