Systemwide treatment of Oklahoma Department of Corrections inmates who have hepatitis C must be made a policy priority for the state — it's an expense that will only become costlier as time passes.
The agency reports more than 3,000 of the 27,000 men and women in its care tested positive for the blood-borne viral infection that can lead to debilitating liver disease when left untreated. While studies show treating inmates while they are in prison saves money in the long term for health care systems outside, Oklahoma lawmakers have appropriated only enough money to treat symptoms but not the disease.
It is true that treating this potentially debilitating disease is an expensive proposition — state corrections officials report costs ranging from $13,200 to $62,000 for one patient. The Frontier reports the virus is more prevalent in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the nation except Washington, D.C., making the cost of treatment an even more pressing concern.
But public health experts estimate about a third of all hep-C patients will spend some time in a correctional facility. Providing treatment while they are there, it seems, would be a logical proposition, especially since the number of infected likely will increase if the problem is not addressed.
Hepatitis C reportedly kills more Americans than any infectious disease, and the number of Oklahomans in DOC custody who have tested positive for the virus more than doubled in seven years. Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst at Oklahoma Policy Institute described the situation as "an expensive time bomb" that must be addressed.
The state has a constitutional duty to provide medical care to those in its custody, and withholding or delaying treatment from inmates who have hepatitis C has been found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. If lawmakers fail to fund treatment for inmates with hepatitis C, not only would they be putting public health in jeopardy, they put state at risk of being exposed to legal liability.
Finding a funding formula that will address this public health issue in its entirety is the moral and just thing to do.