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An SCDC Inmate at Allendale Correctional Institution on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. A federal court judge recently granted preliminary approval for a consent decree mandating the testing and treatment of all SC inmates with hepatitis C. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

South Carolina moved one step closer this week to the legally mandated testing and treatment of all inmates for hepatitis C. 

In 2017, plaintiffs Russell Geissler, Bernard Bagley and Willie James Jackson filed a federal lawsuit for the testing and treatment of their individual cases of hepatitis C, and for the testing and treatment of current and future inmates. A  proposed class-action settlement was submitted after the lawsuit was filed. 

On Tuesday, that proposed settlement was granted preliminary approval by a federal judge. It still requires final approval. 

“This is a major step toward eliminating a point source for hepatitis C,” class counsel Reuben Guttman, with the law firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, said in a press release. 

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that is spread through the blood of an infected individual entering the bloodstream of someone who is not infected. It is typically spread through the sharing of unclean needles. The virus can also survive in blood droplets outside the body for several days.

Drug treatments that cure the virus cost between $4,000 and $15,000 per person, depending on the infected individual's health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three inmates in jails and prisons have hepatitis C.

Since July 2018, the S.C. Department of Corrections has tested more than 13,000 current and former inmates for the viral infection. This was before the court entered a partial agreement earlier this year that called for SCDC to establish a hepatitis C testing program. 

The department also received $10 million in its 2019-2020 budget to cover drugs, staffing, equipment and other expenses related to the testing and treatment for hepatitis C. Of the thousands of inmates who have already been tested, nearly 1,400 positive cases of chronic hepatitis C were reported.

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Testing for all 18,125 inmates in South Carolina is on schedule to be completed by June 2020. Nearly $450,000 in treatment costs is expected to be used by the department for the first quarter of 2020. 

Bryan Stirling, SCDC's director, said in a press release that the settlement is a big step toward their goal of providing a safe environment. 

“We know that about 85 percent of inmates return to society within five years, and this will save medical treatment costs for taxpayers in the long run," he said. 

All parties expect for the court to set a hearing date for the final approval of the settlement sometime in the near future. 

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.