A recent headline in the Miami Herald read “State let hepatitis C go untreated in prisons, and it may cost taxpayers.” As I read the story, shock turned to outrage and then to sadness. For years, the state of Florida has been quietly carrying out a policy of deliberate medical neglect toward imprisoned felons infected with hepatitis C. That policy, in its inhumanity and lack of professional ethics, rivals the notorious Tuskegee experiment.
The decades-old Tuskegee study involved doctors withholding treatment from black men diagnosed with syphilis to study the natural progression of the disease. Over decades, syphilis ravages the body, including the brain, inflicting irreversible physical and mental injury that eventually destroys the personality and the person.
The inhumanity of the Tuskegee study, aggravated by the racism inherent in the choice of the study population, rationalized as an effort to develop medical knowledge which would help humanity, is exceeded only by Nazi medical research in its horror. The Tuskegee case led to the development of strict rules for the protection of human subjects in research.
In choosing to withhold medical treatment from inmates suffering from hepatitis C, Florida can’t even claim the sorry scientific rationale used by the Tuskegee researchers. The sole reason that for years the Republican state legislature failed to provide crucial treatment is that it is unwilling to spend money to preserve the quality and length of life of a population many consider the dregs of society. Why spend money on expendable, undeserving, unworthy, mostly black people when it can be spent on tax breaks for corporations with good lobbyists and other perks for the rich and famous, such as no state income tax, no tax on “intangible” property, and lucrative sweetheart projects for favored businesses.
Although I am not an international law expert, I consider the hepatitis C denial of care case a crime against humanity. Hepatitis C is a horrible disease that produces pain, suffering and death. The Herald accurately describes it as causing liver infection, scarring of the liver, bloating, bleeding, liver cancer, and a painful death.
This case brings together many of the elements of the nightmarish society Republicans are well on the way to creating in Florida and in the nation: a cruel, miserly practice of not spending money to protect the most vulnerable; an abdication of the state’s responsibilities toward its people through outsourcing that yields rich profits for companies and plausible deniability for the state; an utter disregard for the well-being of the vast majority; and a “whatever the market can bear” attitude that allows pharmaceutical companies to charge sky-high prices for life-saving drugs.
Compound all this with a lack of transparency evident in so many actions of the state, including most recently removing from a state website information on nursing home inspections. Who knew that this hepatitis C outrage was taking place under our noses and in our name? I keep up with the news more than most people, and I didn’t. I found out only after the Miami Herald reported on a scathing opinion against the state by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, who wrote: “FDC [the Florida Department of Corrections] has a long and sordid history of failing to treat HCV-infected inmates.”
The judge cited indisputable evidence when he wrote that the state was “deliberately indifferent” by failing to provide funding for treatment. Indeed, of 8,000 prisoners eligible for treatment, only 13 had ever received it including, not coincidentally, the three who had brought the class action suit against the state.
The state’s medical negligence is not only unconscionable from the standpoint of the consequences to the infected inmates, it presents a public health threat. Hepatitis C is contagious. The rate of hepatitis C infection is several times higher among inmates than in the general population. About a third of the state’s prisoner population is released into society each year. There is no need to elaborate on what happens after that.
Florida, with Texas and a few other states, leads the nation when it comes to despicable social policies. The Florida legislature debated whether to require nursing homes to have back-up electrical power in the form of generators. It said no. After Irma, people in South Florida died because of that industry-friendly decision. The main headline in Sunday’s Miami Herald provides another sordid example: “Filth, sewage and lice found in youth lockups.” Lice? Nice.
All of this is perfectly in line with current Republican policy in other states and at the federal level. The New York Times reports that, after passing its upside down (my words) tax cuts, Republicans are aiming to cut the safety net.
What safety net?