Mike Donovan (left), president and CEO of Nexus Services, Inc.; Frank Jackson, managing director of ARMED in Chicago; and Mario Williams, from Nexus Caridades Attorneys, Inc., attended a news conference Thursday regarding the class-action lawsuit brought by inmate Terry A. Riggleman against Virginia. Riggleman is accusing the state of failing to treat him — and other inmates — for hepatitis C.
An inmate backed by pro-bono lawyers and a civil rights group is suing the Virginia Department of Corrections for allegedly failing to treat prisoners who have hepatitis C.
Terry A. Riggleman — who is currently incarcerated at Augusta Correctional Center, but was originally diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2005 while at Lawrenceville Correctional Center — filed the lawsuit through attorneys with Nexus Caridades Attorneys, Inc. on June 26 in the Western District of Virginia, Harrisonburg Division.
Riggleman, who is incarcerated on a robbery charge with 10 more years in his sentence, tried to obtain treatment for his hepatitis C as more advanced drugs with a hefty price tag became available starting in 2013 that could more effectively treat and potentially cure the virus.
He was repeatedly given a variety of excuses for why he could not receive treatment, the lawsuit claims, including that his hepatitis C had not advanced far enough to warrant treatment.
The lawsuit specifically names Harold Clarke and Mark Amonette, the director and chief medical director, respectively, of the Department of Corrections. Mario Williams, chief of the civil rights division at Nexus Caridades Attorneys, Inc., encouraged Clarke and Amonette to speak with lawyers about the issue to come to a resolution.
“The problems extend beyond the walls of the prison,” Williams said during a news conference Thursday in front of the state Capitol. “Virginia has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. (If) any of these inmates are released, they go into the community, and they infect other people with hepatitis C.”
The suit was filed in late June as a class-action lawsuit because, though Riggleman is the only named plaintiff, it applies to all other inmates with hepatitis C or in a similar situation to Riggleman’s, according to Williams. The suit estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of Virginia’s inmates have hepatitis C.
“That constitutes an outbreak of the largest and most dangerous proportions,” said Mike Donovan, president and CEO of Nexus Services, Inc., which funds the pro bono practice of Nexus Caridades Attorneys, Inc.
“As it relates to other states, Virginia fails in the rate of infection of our inmates in the Department of Corrections system,” Donovan continued. “And so therefore it probably wouldn’t surprise us to know that that failure is perpetuated by a lack of care and concern for the treatment of those inmates. In fact, it is the policy of the Virginia Department of Corrections to not provide medicine that constitutes a cure for hepatitis C.”
There have been several advancements in the treatment of hepatitis C in the past four years, the most substantial of which was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drug Harvoni, which cures hepatitis C in 90 to 95 percent of cases. Prior to 2013, treatment for hepatitis C involved an anti-viral regimen that lasted up to a year, included significant side effects that in some cases presented worse symptoms than the actual hepatitis C, and had a much lower cure rate.
But the biggest obstacle to obtaining Harvoni is cost. When it was first released the drug cost more than $90,000 for a 12-week treatment, and some insurances companies still do not cover the drug.
Cost, though, is not an excuse, according to representatives with Nexus and the civil rights group Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination, or ARMED, which is publicly supporting the lawsuit.
“If the issue is cost, which I know it is, then perhaps we can find alternatives to incarceration that can help people get out of custody and provide their own medical care and work and pay for it,” Donovan said. “But, the reality is that based on what the system is right now, people will die — hundreds of people a year will die, thousands will become infected with a disease that is absolutely curable.”
Hepatitis C may go undetected for years in some individuals. Symptoms of the virus, which can spread through shared needles, blood or sexual activity, can take more than 20 years to develop. But over time, it can cause serious damage, resulting in cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Once the virus advances to that stage, the damage can rarely be reversed, which is why early treatment, those with Nexus and ARMED said, is so vital.
When Riggleman found out about the cure, the lawsuit states, he approached medical staff and inquired into it. The lawsuit alleges that he was turned down for treatment due to not meeting the necessary criteria in November 2016 and in March. He currently suffers from symptoms of hepatitis C, according to the suit, such as chronic joint pain, abdominal pain, nerve pain and constant fatigue.
A Department of Corrections spokesman declined to comment on the pending litigation.
According to the department’s guidelines for chronic hepatitis C diagnosis and management, offenders with more advanced liver disease will be approved for treatment, but treatment guidelines change on a case-by-case basis beyond that. The guidelines don’t address the cost of treatment.
“The decision to initiate treatment will be based on (hepatitis C) severity, demonstration of willingness to avoid at risk behavior, and having sufficient time remaining in the VADOC to complete the evaluation, treatment and follow-up,” the guidelines state.
Information on how many inmates are currently being treated for hepatitis C and whether the department ever uses Harvoni was not available by press time Thursday.