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S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling requested more than $20 million for 2019-2020 fiscal year to address hepatitis C among the state's prison population. 

More than 15,000 South Carolina inmates will be tested for hepatitis C if a federal judge officially approves a proposed class-action lawsuit settlement.

Hepatitis C is a virus that can be passed from one patient to the next through blood transfusions or tainted needles. In some cases, if left untreated, the disease can lead to liver cancer and death. 

The federal lawsuit, filed in 2017 by plaintiffs Russell Geissler, Bernard Bagley and Willie James Jackson, calls for the testing and treatment of their individual cases of hepatitis C, as well as those of current and future inmates. 

According to one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, the S.C. Department of Corrections has also agreed to examine more than 300 inmates to estimate the severity of the virus among South Carolina's inmate population. The results of this examination are due to be reported by early January. 

“That's a big deal," said Christopher Bryant, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. He said the Corrections Department currently does not test for hepatitis C on a system-wide scale. 

Preliminary approval of the settlement has already been granted. A fairness hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 12 in Columbia. A spokesman for the Corrections Department did not respond to messages for this article. 

The more challenging next step, Bryant said, is to secure funding to treat inmates in this state who test positive for hepatitis C.

Relatively new drugs introduced to the market in recent years can cure hepatitis C for most infected patients, but they cost about $25,000 a person. The Post and Courier reported in November that the S.C. Medicaid agency has spent almost $100 million on hepatitis C treatment since 2013. 

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In his budget request for fiscal year 2019-20, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling requested more than $20 million for a hepatitis C treatment program. In his justification for the request, he said the funding will "provide critical medications and health care positions that will serve the 'Hep C' inmate population for a cure and continued monitoring to reduce the spread within our institutions and outside population upon their release."

A 2015 study published by the World Journal of Hepatology found the prevalence of the hepatitis C virus in prison populations can range between 3 and 38 percent.

Bryant estimated that 95 percent of the prison population routinely returns to the general public. That's why he said it is imperative for people to view this as a health problem, and not just a prison problem. 

“They are at risk of infecting others unknowingly," he said.