Tennessee gov eyes $24.7M to treat hepatitis C in prisons

Friday, April 12, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 15

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is seeking almost $24.7 million to treat hepatitis C in prisons.

On Tuesday, Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter told a Senate panel about the request in the administration's wide-ranging budget amendment for the fiscal year beginning in July. The Legislature is expected to complete work on the budget by early next month.

McWhorter said the funding would draw from $24 million originally planned for Lee's proposed voucher-style education program, which is working its way through the Legislature. That funding would've been unused under the current education savings account proposal, he said.

McWhorter said the funding still wouldn't address the full prison population in need of the expensive hepatitis C treatment and the administration will likely request more funding for it next year.

The extra funding would come amid an ongoing class action lawsuit by inmates targeting the state over its treatment of hepatitis C in prisons.

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that can be serious. It is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person.

As of late June 2018, 4,663 inmates were in individual chronic care clinics for hepatitis C, according to state Department of Correction figures. McWhorter said the department told him in conversations that the number of patients who would be eligible for treatment could top 6,000.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also say the number of people infected could be much higher than what's reported.

The department declined to offer more precise details on the money.

"Due to pending litigation and privacy regarding pharmaceutical prices, the department cannot go into detail regarding the terms of service for the proposed funding," department spokeswoman Faith Seifuddin said. "The additional $24.7 million will fund HCV treatment for the inmate population."

In the budget amendment, the Republican governor's administration adds tens of millions of dollars more in proposed funding for other projects. Some of them include:

— $10 million for a riverfront development grant in Memphis.

— $8.7 million in grants to nonprofits, including $3 million for the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

— $8.2 million for a Radioactive Material Training Center in Oak Ridge, a uranium processing center that is expected to create 900 jobs in the region. It's expected to draw federal matching money of $20 million in the next two years, likely requiring more state funding the following year.

— $1.55 million in recurring money and $5.1 million in one-time funding for various education initiatives, including $2.8 million for literacy programs.

— $4 million to help sheriff's offices keep transporting people with mental illnesses or contract out the services.

— $4 million for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to help address damage caused by flooding earlier this year.

— $500,000 for the state attorney general's involvement in a lawsuit over the Memphis Aquifer, bringing the total to $750,000. The attorney general's office says Mississippi is challenging Tennessee's use of water from the aquifer and is seeking more than $600 million in damages, with the U.S. Supreme Court set to decide because the case is between two states.