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Minnesota inmates win access to costly hepatitis C drugs



MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota inmates with chronic hepatitis C infections have gained access to expensive drug treatment following a class-action lawsuit settlement.

Five inmates infected with the virus sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 2015, accusing the agency of withholding medication that has a 95 percent cure rate, the Star Tribune reported.

The “direct acting antiviral” drugs, which were first approved by federal regulators in 2013, range in price from $26,400 to more than $100,000 per patient and have fewer side effects than older treatments.

The state agency has argued that providing the drug would overwhelm the state’s corrections budget.

The settlement terms, which won preliminary approval Monday, require the department to screen all inmates for hepatitis C, a potentially fatal viral infection that attacks the liver.

The department must provide the antiviral drugs to any inmate with an advanced stage of the disease, or those who have both hepatitis C and other health complications, such as another viral infection, diabetes or a liver transplant.

Inmates denied treatment will be able to seek a re-evaluation every six months, and any inmate with hepatitis C will get treatment after 16 months in prison.

Prior to the settlement, the state’s corrections department said in past court filings that it had been providing the expensive antiviral drugs to some inmates with advanced stages of the disease, spending about $1.6 million during a nine-month period between 2016 and 2018.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said in an order that the department was essentially telling its inmates they wouldn’t be treated until they suffered liver damage.

“Hepatitis is a slow progressing condition that can cause liver disease,” said Sarah Fitzgerald, the department’s spokeswoman. “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.”

The litigation follows similar calls for the expensive drugs in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

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