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Vermont Hep-C Settlement Agreement Provides Direct-Acting Antivirals to Infected Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

A settlement agreement setting out guidelines for care that the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) will provide to prisoners with Hepatitis-C was finalized on May 14, 2021, calling for enhanced screening of incoming prisoners and altering policies and procedures governing who can receive Direct-Acting Antiviral (DAA) treatment for the disease.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont on May 21, 2019, also naming as a defendant DOC’s private medical contractor, Centurion Health. In the suit, plaintiffs Richard West and Joseph Bruyette, on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated state prisoners, alleged that DAA treatment—which costs an average of $30,000 per course—was offered only to prisoners in chronic disease stages. That left prisoners still in early stages of fibrosis to go untreated until their disease progressed.

The suit was certified as a class action on March 30, 2020, the same day the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss. DOC then terminated its contract with Centurion Health on July 1, 2020, and the Court dismissed all claims against the firm the following August 24, substituting DOC’s new healthcare contractor, VitalCore Health Strategies, on November 9, 2020.

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, over which the Court retained jurisdiction until January 1, 2023. During that period, Defendants agreed they would not categorically limit access to DAA treatment “for sentenced inmates who will remain in confinement for more than 4-6 months, based on disease severity, disciplinary record or substance use.”

Class members were to be provided notice of the settlement, including a copy of the new policy, and informing those previously denied DAA treatment who were still interested in receiving it to consult with their medical provider about its appropriateness for them. Additionally, the new policy will normalize the authorization process when a request for DAA treatment is submitted. DOC will also screen prisoners for Hepatitis C upon admission.

The settlement provided a $3,000 award for costs, but each party was to bear its own attorney’s fees. Counsel was provided to the class by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, and the Brattleboro firm of Costello, Valente & Gentry, P.C. See: West v. Smith, USDC (D. Vt.), Case no. 2:19-cv-00081.

A similar settlement in a similar suit filed by infected prisoners in neighboring Connecticut was reached in November 2020, but the federal judge overseeing the case rejected it in March 2021, calling provisions that forced arbitration of disputes overly broad. PLN will update details in that case as they become available. See: Barfield v. Cook, USDC (D.Conn.), Case No. 3:18-cv-01198-MPS. 

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Related legal cases

Barfield v. Cook

West v. Smith