From a Death Sentence to Hope

The Fight For Adequate Medical Care For All Prisoners, Regardless of Age.

Adequate medical care is a human rights issue

Adequate medical care is a human rights issue

 

Tiffanny Smith, Litigation Attorney, Ohio Justice & Policy Center

Tiffanny Smith, Litigation Attorney, Ohio Justice & Policy Center

When I saw Gary last spring, he was not the man I had known years ago.  He was withdrawn and quiet.  He talked about his health and that he was resigned to dying.  Gary is incarcerated.  Gary has Hepatitis C.  He was told by his doctors that he could not get treatment, because of his age.  Gary just turned 70. 

 

Gary was a member of the class action lawsuit that the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) filed against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) in 2003.  The lawsuit, Fussel v. Wilkinson, addressed the prison’s denial of adequate medical care for serious medical needs.  Its settlement in 2005 was supposed to ensure the Ohio prisons meet the minimum standards for basic human decency in providing medical care; but 12 years later, Ohio prisoners still suffer from untreated medical conditions.  

 

Dr. No!

Dr. No!

ODRC’s Medical Director Dr. Andrew Eddy is responsible for creating and approving medical protocols for ODRC.  His policies and protocols exclude prisoners from receiving appropriate medical care and are not updated to keep with the current medical standards of care.

 

Since Fussel, Gary has continued having to fight for his medical care, because ODRC continues to create policies and use its “discretion” to deny appropriate medical care to prisoners.

 

Hepatitis C, untreated, leads to a painful death.

Hepatitis C, untreated, leads to a painful death.

Hepatitis C can be a death sentence, but it doesn’t have to be.  If not treated, Hepatitis C eventually destroys the liver and leads to a painful death.  Currently, more people in the U.S. die from Hepatitis C than any other disease.  But there is hope!  There are treatments.  One medication, Harvoni, has a 99% cure rate for patients up to the age of 80. 

 

Unfortunately, Gary had been denied treatment over and over for years, because ODRC’s Hepatitis C protocol contained a restriction that anyone over the age of 65 will automatically be denied treatment.  As Gary said, “I was 68 at the time and being denied, because of my age, was a death sentence.  I became depressed and prepared myself for death.”

 

OJPC investigated and confirmed that the ODRC protocol for treatment of Hepatitis C excluded treatment for all patients over the age of 65 regardless of any other factors.  When the ODRC protocol was created, it was dangerous for older persons to receive treatment due to the dangerous side effects of the medication available at the time.  In 2014, new, safer treatments became available and were added to the prison’s medication list.  However, Dr. Eddy did not update the protocol and continued to use his “discretion” to refuse treatment for anyone over the age of 65 stating that the age restriction was “non-negotiable.”

 

With financial support from Impact Fund, OJPC consulted a medical expert who reviewed Gary’s medical record and found that treatment was both indicated and necessary.  OJPC gave notice to ODRC of our intention to file a lawsuit alleging constitutional violations by denying necessary and appropriate medical treatment, especially based on an arbitrary age restriction.  ODRC subsequently agreed to have Gary evaluated by a specialist and treated according to his recommendations.

 

Gary and Sheba

Gary and Sheba

Today, I am happy to report that Gary was seen by a specialist and started treatment with Harvoni!  Gary said, “Just knowing that I am getting the treatment, lifts my spirits and gives me hope to extend my life.  This is a big moment for me.”  It makes me smile when Gary calls.  He has his hope back!

 

This treatment allows Gary to continue his work in the dog training program sponsored by Pilot Dogs, Inc.  Gary’s dog, Sheba, recently graduated and was placed with an individual with hearing or visual impairments.  He anxiously awaits his new puppy to train. 

 

“I am grateful for the hard work and great effort of those at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center who made all this happen.”

 

ODRC has subsequently changed its protocol for prisoners with Hepatitis; those over the age of 65 are now evaluated “on an individual basis including co-morbidities and life expectancy.” 

 

Although I am glad we were able to assist Gary, we continue to receive requests from prisoners who are being denied medical care, especially for Hepatitis C.  Our work continues.  We will persist in fighting for adequate and appropriate medical care and for policies and protocols that adhere to an acceptable standard of care.