Biotech and Pharma

Convicted cop killer must get very, very expensive hepatitis C drugs, federal court judge rules

A protestor stands next to an image of Mumia Abu-Jamal outside the U.S. Department of Justice on April 24, 2012 in Washington.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The convicted killer of a Philadelphia police officer must be given pricey medication to treat his hepatitis C — at taxpayer expense — while he is imprisoned, a federal judge has said.

The preliminary injunction ruling in favor of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose efforts to win freedom have garnered international support for decades, could potentially help other inmates nationwide who likewise have been denied similar treatment for hepatitis C because of the high cost of the new, extremely effective drugs.

The ruling found that "budgetary constraints" by states do not trump their obligation under the U.S. Constitution to provide adequate medical care to inmates.

If that finding is mirrored in other pending cases by inmates, it could further help the bottom line of drug companies including Gilead Sciences, Merck and AbbVie, which sell antiviral medications that treat the liver-damaging hepatitis C.

But it could lead to more financial strain on state prison systems.

While only an estimated 1 percent or so of the U.S. population is infected with hepatitis C, prisoners are much more apt to have the disease. The average infection rate among prisoners is more than 17 percent, but rates as high as 40 percent have been seen in some corrections systems.

The Wall Street Journal noted Wednesday that other, similar suits to Abu-Jamal's filed by infected inmates are pending in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Missouri.

Abu-Jamal, 62, is a former radio journalist who is serving a life sentence for the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner during a 1981 traffic stop of Abu-Jamal's brother.

He filed suit in federal court in Pennsylvania after the state's Department of Corrections denied him access to antiviral drugs like Harvoni, Sovaldi, Viekira Pak, and Zepatier to treat his hepatitis C. Those drugs can cost from between $54,000 to more than $94,000 for a course of treatment.

And the Wall Street Journal has reported that state officials in court documents estimated that they would have to spend $600 million annually if they had to treat all hep-C-infected prisoners with those medications.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani found that the Corrections Department's decision to deny Abu-Jamal the drug was based on a policy that bars such treatment except in cases of a prisoner's suffering from "vast fibrosis or cirrhosis." Fibrosis is scarring of the liver.

That policy, Mariani wrote, "presents a conscious disregard of the known risk that inmates with fibrosis, like Plaintiff, will suffer from hepatitis C related complications, continued liver scarring and damage progressing into cirrhosis," and other conditions.

"In choosing a course of monitoring over treatment," Mariani wrote, corrections officials "consciously disregarded the known risks of Plaintiff's serious medical needs."

Mariani also said that "the only conceivable injury" that the Corrections Department "will suffer is monetary," because the ruling requires the agency to treat Abu-Jamal with the medications.

The judge wrote that while he "is sensitive to the realities of budgetary constraints and the difficult decisions prison officials must make, the economics of providing this medication cannot outweigh the Eighth Amendment's constitutional guarantee of adequate medical care."