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updated: 4/18/2014 4:20 PM

Illinois prisons to use costly hepatitis C drug

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois prison officials will be using an effective, but costly, new drug to treat inmates with hepatitis C, therapy that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

The Department of Corrections has approved using Sovaldi, a drug that some clinical studies show has a cure rate of 95 percent, the Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises reported Friday.

But a single treatment can cost $61,000. Corrections officials estimate there are as many as 150 inmates in each of the state's 25 prisons who have the life-threatening blood-borne infection commonly linked to sharing tainted needles.

Members of Congress have asked Sovaldi manufacturer Gilead Sciences Inc. to justify its price structure.

Illinois is beset by a financial crunch. A doomsday budget in which the state's temporary tax increase isn't made permanent has the Corrections Department releasing as many as 15,500 inmates.

Corrections officials say treatment will be on a case-by-case basis depending on the extent of the disease, the inmate's overall health and his sentence.

"It is impossible to say how many inmates will be treated in a particular way or with a particular drug," spokesman Tom Shaer said. "IDOC has decided, yes, these drugs will be used, when appropriate. We cannot determine the extent to which they will be used.

Documents show per-inmate treatment cost could be as much as $122,000. Treating one-third of infected inmates at the base cost would be a $61 million expense, compared with current hepatitis C treatment costs of $8 million.

When admitted to prison, inmates, unless they refuse, are screened for the disease, which when left untreated can lead to liver failure and death. That protocol had been recommended by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group.

The association's executive director John Maki said undiagnosed inmates can spread the disease to other inmates and the public once released.

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