Ruling in Lawsuit Challenging Tennessee Department of Corrections HCV Protocol

  • November 6, 2019

In 2016, Disability Rights Tennessee, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, and Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC filed a lawsuit challenging the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) protocol for treating inmates with HCV, or the Hepatitis C Virus. Patients with HCV are often treated with direct-acting antiviral (DAA) therapy, which has been described as a cure for HCV. After being classified as a class action by a judge in 2017, a trial was held in 2019 on behalf of inmates who were denied adequate medical care after being diagnosed with HCV.

In that trial an inmate with HCV who had been denied treatment by TDOC testified, “I've done almost 15 years in prison. I'm getting toward the end of my sentence, and my life is completely changed. And I'm looking forward to getting out and being a part of the community and, you know, and doing things and giving back. And in doing that, then you think, well, you might not live that much longer. That was my first thought. And, you know, it's one -- it's not a big deal so much as to what kills you, but it is about when you die, I think. Whether you die of a heart attack or liver disease, it's not really that big a deal. However, if you die at 42, with a liver disease, as opposed to 62, 72 or 82 and it could have been prevented, that's really -- it's frustrating.”

On September 30, 2019, the Court issued a decision and, ultimately, ruled in favor of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Although the federal court ruled against the inmates, the decision was based on the HCV policies and protocols the TDOC put in place just two months before trial and three years after the filing of the lawsuit. Since the filing of the lawsuit, Governor Lee allocated $25 million dollars to treat inmates with HCV in his 2019 budget and TDOC revised their policies to treat more inmates.

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.”

In the decision, the Court states, “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."

Even though the State technically prevailed, inmates are in a significantly better position to receive treatment due to these policy changes and allotted funds DRT continues to monitor the progress of its clients and the implementation of TDOCs updated protocols.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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