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The drug maker AbbVie has just won FDA approval for a new hepatitis C treatment. It's the latest in a year of medical milestones for the estimated 5 million Americans with this chronic liver disease. But those milestones have come at a steep price - most of the new hepatitis C drugs to hit the market this year cost tens of thousands of dollars, and that is a big problem in places where you find many people with the disease - prisons and jails. Rhode Island Public Radio's Kristin Espeland Gourlay reports.
ESPELAND GOURLAY, BYLINE: Every week, Dr. Michael Poshkus visits the medium security prison in Cranston, Rhode Island to see patients with hepatitis C. Until recently, their only treatment option was a weekly injection in the stomach for at least a year. It worked less than half the time and caused debilitating side effects to boot. But everything has changed. New treatments can cure hepatitis C in a matter of weeks.
An inmate named Louis shows up for his appointment and settles onto the exam table. He doesn't want me to use his last name. Louis is worried that after he's released in 2017, he might not be able to get a job if people know his history. Also, he's concerned about his family's safety. Some people might not like that he's being treated at taxpayers' expense. Dr. Poshkus gives him the good news.
MICHAEL POSHKUS: We're going to discuss your case at the hepatitis C committee. And I think that we'll recommend that we get you started on treatment, which will cure you of this chronic disease that you've have over all these years.
GOURLAY: Poshkus tells Louis his liver shows signs of damage from hepatitis C. Treating it now will prevent further damage like cirrhosis or even liver cancer. If the committee says yes, Lewis will take a drug called Sovaldi. One pill a day for 12 weeks. But each pill costs $1,000 and you have to take it in combination with another expensive drug. The prison simply can't afford to treat everyone who's sick right now, so a committee reviews each inmate's case, prioritizing the sickest patients.
LOUIS: Now I'm a candidate for - I'll be high on the list. I just - it kind of brings tears to your eyes, you know, because finally it's going to be over with, you know?
GOURLAY: Louis is 52. He served a lot of time for crimes he committed while dealing or doing drugs, and he's had hepatitis C nearly half his life. Now he wants to put all that behind him. He knows the treatment is expensive and that some taxpayers might not like the idea of footing a prisoner's bill.
LOUIS: We are still somebody's father, daughter, mother. And time to time you will hear people say, well they're bad people, this and that. But until it happens to somebody in their family, it's a different ballgame.
GOURLAY: Society asks, isn't it better to treat inmate while they're a captive audience? So many already struggle with addiction, if they end of shooting drugs and sharing needles when they get out, they could spread the disease to others.
But beyond the public health argument, there is a legal one. The Constitution guarantees prisoners the same medical care that's standard in the community. The trouble is, that standard of care changed practically overnight. Rhode Island Department of Corrections head A.T. Wall says he still hasn't figured out how to pay for it.
A.T. WALL: The advent of these new treatments for hepatitis C came like a monsoon on a calm summer day. We didn't see it coming.
GOURLAY: When Wall submitted this year's budget, he didn't know the new treatment would cost nearly $150,000 per inmate. Now he faces some impossible math. Hundreds of inmates under his care have hepatitis C, many with advanced liver disease. But his entire health care budget barely tops $19 million.
Prisons across the country are facing the same dilemma. Rich Feffer runs the National Hepatitis Corrections Network, a group that advocates better hepatitis prevention, testing and treatment in prisons and jails. Feffer says most facilities are simply waiting for something to give.
RICH FEFFER: Even in systems where those drugs are being used, there are still tight controls on access, and they're not being used in a wide variety of people or universally, by any means.
GOURLAY: Feffer estimates between 20 to 40 percent of inmates nationwide have hepatitis C - a much higher rate than the general population. Treating them could make a big dent in the epidemic. Finding the money to do it is another story.
For NPR News, I'm Kristin Espeland Gourlay in Rhode Island.
GREENE: Kristin's story was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships - a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
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