The ACLU of Colorado has filed a federal class-action lawsuit aimed at pressuring the Colorado Department of Corrections to expand treatment for prisoners with Hepatitis C.
The civil rights group says as many as 2,200 prisoners suffer from the life-threatening illness.
"Colorado has an immense public health crisis in its prisons," said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.
He noted that 1-in-9 prisoners has Hepatitis C. Complications from the disease kill nearly as many Coloradans in custody every year as drug and alcohol abuse, homicide and suicide combined, Silverstein said.
"Highly effective treatment is available that could prevent deaths and fight the spread of the virus, but DOC's cruel and arbitrary standards deny that treatment to all but a select few prisoners, in violation of established medical standards and the Eighth Amendment," Silverstein said.
The Department of Corrections says it has cared for 80 prisoners with new treatment options over the past two years and is working to expand treatment.
The chronic, communicable disease attacks the liver, causing diminished function, cirrhosis and liver failure. It is the most deadly infectious disease in the U.S., killing more Americans than the next 60 infectious diseases combined.
Early symptoms are chronic fatigue, depression, arthritis, and increased risk of heart attacks, diabetes, nerve damage, jaundice and various cancers.
The Federal Drug Administration has approved breakthrough medications over the past four years that can cure the disease in more than 90 percent of cases. Colorado prison officials say they are working to expand implementation of the drugs.
But prisoners with Hepatitis C are not considered for treatment until they have sustained significant liver damage and enroll in alcohol and drug therapy that can take more than two years to complete, a requirement with no medical justification, the ACLU says.
Its complaint alleges that DOC officials are deliberately allowing the vast majority of prisoners who are not selected for treatment to suffer and die from untreated Hepatitis C.
Based on the current schedule, the DOC would take more than 10 years to treat the 735 prisoners currently eligible for the new drugs, says the ACLU complaint.
"Despite the availability of a cure, DOC plans to leave thousands of prisoners untreated, to continue releasing those untreated prisoners back to the community with a communicable disease, and to accept years of additional deaths and serious medical complications from untreated Hepatitis C," Silverstein said. "Not only is that dangerous for public health, it is a cruel way to save some money in the short term that may end up costing taxpayers a lot more in the long term."