Nevada launches drive to test all inmates, treat hepatitis C

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — With costs falling for hepatitis C treatment, Nevada state prisons are launching a program to test all inmates for the blood-borne virus.

The state Department of Corrections has budgeted about $6.8 million and plans to hire contract staff to screen all inmates in coming months, including those just entering the system, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported .

Nevada has about 13,000 men and women at seven correctional centers, nine conservation camps and two transitional housing facilities, corrections department spokesman Scott Kelley said.

In a report Friday to the state Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, deputy prisons chief John Borrowman called curing chronic hepatitis C before releasing inmates “an invaluable step toward (virus) elimination and successful community reintegration.”

“The cost-benefit is not only just in the actual treatment but also healthier public communities,” prisons nursing chief Theresa Wickham said. “It’s really a public health issue.”

The testing represents a policy change and comes with treatment now reaching a greater than 90% success rate for at-risk groups including inmate populations, the Review-Journal said.

Testing costs $8, and the newspaper reported the cost of a new drug to cure the disease has dropped from about $100,000 to $5,000.

Committee members weren’t asked for program approval or funding. Borrowman said the department will seek an OK to transfer contingency funds to cover costs.

Some lawmakers chastised the cash-strapped department for not including the program in its regular budget and instead adding to its deficit.

“You keep digging a hole,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlson, D-Las Vegas said, “and instead of building a ladder you just get out another shovel.”

Borrowman said the program was “undeveloped” when the corrections department submitted its budget a year ago.

Prisons are required by law to provide appropriate medical care to inmates.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak this month announced the hiring of new prisons chief Charles Daniels, a former Alabama prisons administrator with executive experience at several federal prisons. He replaced James Dzurenda, who held the Nevada prisons director job for three years before resigning in July.

Curing inmates of hepatitis C includes education to change risky behaviors that can cause it to spread, officials said.

The virus affects the liver and can be fatal. It is spread by exposure to infected blood, often by drug users sharing dirty intravenous needles.