Court Finds TDOC’s Past Hepatitis C Protocol “Bordered on Deliberate Indifference”

October 1, 2019

NASHVILLE — A federal court ruled late yesterday against inmates who were denied adequate medical care after being diagnosed with Hepatitis C (HCV) while under the supervision of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee and Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC on behalf of inmates who were denied adequate medical care after being diagnosed with HCV.

The federal class action lawsuit was filed in July of 2016. At the time of the filing, a nationwide medically accepted standard of care for HCV using direct-acting anti-viral drugs (DAA) was established that resulted in curing the disease in at least 90 percent of cases. However, as of May 2016, only eight of the 3,487 Tennessee Department of Corrections inmates identified as infected were receiving treatment with direct-acting anti-viral drugs. TDOC further acknowledged that nearly half of the inmates tested for Hepatitis C in 2015 were positive, which puts the likely number of infected inmates closer to 10,000.

In the words of the court, the inmates who testified at the trial “presented compelling proof” that “TDOC’s treatment of HCV inmates has been erratic, uneven, and poor, resulting in denial of DAA treatment where it was clearly appropriate. There is convincing evidence that TDOC’s DAA past treatment protocols have been uneven, and have bordered on deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of individual inmates.”

At least 109 inmates have died from complications related to HCV in Tennessee Department of Corrections custody since 2009.

In 2019, about two months before the trial and over three years after the lawsuit was filed, the Tennessee Department of Corrections put in place new HCV policies and protocols. The court’s decision was based on these new policies.

The judge concludes, “Time will tell whether TDOC implements the 2019 HCV Guidance in the dedicated manner it has represented and continues to accelerate approval of inmates for treatment with DAAs. It would behoove TDOC to do so and to engage [the plaintiff’s expert witness] to assist in maintaining this progress, lest treatment that is not grossly inadequate today be subject to that renewed claim in the future."

The following reaction is from:

Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director: “While we are troubled by the court’s decision, we are gratified that our lawsuit forced the Tennessee Department of Corrections to change its Hepatitis C treatment policies. However, for far too many years, thousands of inmates never received appropriate treatment – suffering needlessly from a permanently damaging and entirely preventable disease. We will continue to remain vigilant and monitor to ensure that the state implements its new protocol in a committed manner.”

Sherry A. Wilds, Disability Rights Tennessee director of pro bono services & legal interns/senior staff attorney: “Let us not forget those Tennesseans behind locked doors, hidden from view. It is our hope that the Tennessee Department of Corrections will ensure these individuals receive this necessary treatment in a timely manner despite this ruling. It is the right thing to do and we will continue to push this important issue.”

ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Karla Campbell of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC: “While we disagree with the court’s decision, we note that it was based on a new Hepatitis C treatment policy that the department adopted approximately two months before trial. However, prior to that, more than 100 inmates died from complications of the disease because of the department’s failure to adequately treat them. We regret that so many had to suffer so much before the department changed its policies, but we are proud to have been the catalyst for that change.”

The court’s decision can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Atkins-v-Parker-Decision.pdf

More information on this case can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/graham-et-al-v-parker-et-al/

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