Prisoners' Suit Says New Jersey Ignored Hepatitis to Save Money
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES and RONALD SMOTHERS
For a decade, Walter L. Bennett waited to release the pause button on his life, stride through the gates of the South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, N.J., and begin his life anew. Convicted of armed robbery in 1992, he was finally about to make that walk last June. But before he could resume his life as a free man, he found it endangered by a harsh truth from his captivity: he had tested positive for hepatitis C.
"I trusted that my health was fine, up to par," Mr. Bennett, 42, recalled in an interview yesterday. "But here it is before my release, they drop this bombshell on me. Then they don't give me any information. They just kick me out of the door and tell me to get treatment."
Mr. Bennett is part of what health experts and advocates for inmates' rights say is a growing health crisis in the nation's prison system: the rampant spread of hepatitis C, a potentially fatal liver virus, among inmate populations. A recent federal study indicated that nearly a fifth of the nation's state prison inmates are infected with the disease and that they contract it at a rate 10 times that of the general American population. The problem often goes unchecked because some states do not treat inmates with the disease, the study said.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in a federal court on behalf of Mr. Bennett and 10 unnamed inmates, lawyers hope to change that. Mr. Bennett charges that in order to save money, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and its health care provider did not treat prisoners for hepatitis C.
In papers filed with the suit in Federal District Court in Camden last month, Mr. Bennett's lawyers said the health care provider, Correctional Medical Services, ignored "the issue of hepatitis C virus in order to receive a larger profit from the fees received from New Jersey's Corrections Department."
Corrections officials and the provider declined to comment specifically on the suit, citing internal policies on pending litigation. But Ken Fields, a spokesman for Correctional Medical Services, based in St. Louis, said any allegations that it had placed profits ahead of the medical needs of its patients were "absolutely untrue."
Mr. Bennett, a former intravenous drug user, said he was not told he had tested positive for hepatitis C until two weeks before his release. The suit says Mr. Bennett was not advised on how he might be treated for the disease or cautioned about how the virus, which is blood borne, could be spread to others. A few days after his release, Mr. Bennett was married. He said he later learned that the disease could be spread through unprotected sex. He said his wife has so far tested negative for the disease.
He said he was told after his release that prison officials had misplaced the results of blood tests taken in 2000 that showed elevated levels of liver enzymes, a sign of the disease. "The system betrayed me," he said.
Laura Feldman, a lawyer who filed the suit with her partner Rosemary Pinto, said Mr. Bennett's predicament showed a need for greater education about the disease among prison inmates. "It's a twofold problem," she said. "It's a problem of hepatitis C being spread in the prison population, and the problem of prisoners being released into society with this disease and the threat to society."
The virus, which is fatal in about one of every 20 cases, causes liver disease in about a fifth of its victims and is the leading reason for liver transplants. About four million Americans have the virus.
Nationally, nearly a fifth of all state prison inmates are infected with hepatitis C, according to a study conducted last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts say that the disease is most commonly spread among inmates through intravenous drug use, unprotected sex, the sharing of items like toothbrushes and razors and the use of unsterilized needles by amateur prison tattoo artists.
In New York, about 14 percent of the state's inmates are infected, according to the study. In Connecticut, the figure is about 15 percent.
New Jersey officials, who have not tested prisoners extensively for the disease, reported recently that about 1,200 of the state's 23,000 inmates are infected. But many who study prison health care question that figure, both because the state has not tested broadly for the virus and because it sets the state's inmate infection rate at 5 percent, drastically lower than the national average, 18 percent.
Until last month, New Jersey was the only one of the 10 most populous states that did not treat prisoners for hepatitis C. But after articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer last July about the spread of hepatitis among prison inmates, state officials announced that New Jersey would begin to pay for hepatitis treatment, which can cost as much as $25,000 per inmate.
That treatment, which often involves a combination of the drugs interferon and ribavirin, can curb the virus in as many half the cases, according to figures from the centers. But there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, and the drugs can have adverse side effects.
The state also offered Correctional Medical Services a 10-month extension on its contract. Before the extension was granted, the company, which according to court papers holds a contract with New Jersey worth nearly $100 million, said that hepatitis C treatments should not be considered part of its basic health care contract and that the state should pay extra for them. The state differed, but agreed to pay the costs for the next 10 months.
Mr. Fields, spokesman for the company, said each inmate's physician would consider treatment options case by case.
Mr. Bennett said that he was considering treatment options with a private physician and that he and his wife, Rita, had struggled with the impact of his illness. "She was angry at me at first, but then she realized that it wasn't my fault," he said.
His wife added: "They could have said something to him. Ten years in prison, they could have said something to him."