After years of advocating for Vermont prisoners to have access to life-saving medication for Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), the ACLU of Vermont and the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, with cooperating counsel James Valente, filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state’s refusal to treat hundreds of inmates diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C in May 2019. The case was filed in the federal district court in Burlington on behalf of two Vermont prisoners, Richard West and Joseph Bruyette, who seek to represent a class of inmates who have been or will be denied treatment without medical justification.
In March 2019, Judge William K. Sessions of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont in Burlington handed these inmates a victory when he certified a class of Vermont inmates challenging these practices. In a 23-page opinion, Judge Sessions denied the State’s Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit and approved the request of two individuals to stand-in for all other inmates being denied critically necessary medical treatment for HCV. The lawsuit, entitled West v. Smith, then entered into the discovery phase of litigation.
The Plaintiffs assert the Agency of Human Services (AHS), Department of Corrections (DOC), and Centurion of Vermont’s systematic denial of the HCV cure to prisoners diagnosed with chronic HCV violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are asking the court to end the Defendants’ policy of categorically denying effective, efficient, and medically appropriate HCV treatment.
Hepatitis C is a progressive infectious disease—identified by the CDC as the deadliest infectious disease in America—that if left untreated is likely to cause a variety of medical symptoms, including permanent liver damage, and in some cases, cancer and death. More than five years ago, the FDA approved breakthrough medication with few side effects that effectively cures the disease.
After years of advocacy by the Vermont Coalition for Access to HCV Treatment, of which the ACLU of Vermont is a member, in 2018 DOC began to provide the cure to some inmates on a more regular basis, but still denied it to the vast majority because of the associated expense. Prior to this lawsuit, Coalition members appealed to DOC to stop denying access to the HCV cure to the hundreds of other Vermont inmates who were categorically excluded. DOC refused and to date has only treated about one-fifth of the more than 300 people with chronic Hepatitis C it has identified.
Similar lawsuits challenging denial of Hepatitis C treatment to individuals in state custody have been won or favorably settled by ACLU affiliates and other organizations in several states, including Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri and others, with more cases pending in additional states.