Legislative Victory for People Living with HIV and Hepatitis C

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Governor Paterson has signed a law mandating that the Department of Health (DOH) monitor HIV and hepatitis C care in New York’s prisons and jails–a key recommendation in the CA’s recent report, Healthcare in New York’s Prisons. The bill’s enactment comes after many years of advocacy by the CA and its allies–and right on the heels of a targeted email campaign organized by the CA, in which hundreds of supporters sent messages to the Governor urging him to sign the legislation.

With an estimated 4,000 incarcerated people infected with HIV and close to 9,000 infected with hepatitis C in its custody, the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) is, in effect, one of the largest providers of HIV and hepatitis C care in New York. Yet, prior to the passage of the law, DOCS was exempt from any system of external oversight as to how it provided treatment. While the Department of Health monitors the care provided in hospitals and clinics in the community, it does not currently oversee medical services in New York’s correctional facilities.

While state correctional officials have improved HIV and hepatitis C care in recent years, there are still widespread inconsistencies in the quality of care at different prisons. “Without regular assessment, the state can’t effectively identify which institutions need improvement or track progress,” explains Jack Beck, the Director of the CA’s Prison Visiting Project. “The new legislation will ensure that all facilities are held to the same level of scrutiny.”

“I didn’t see an HIV specialist through-out my entire time at one correctional facility, not even after I had an allergic reaction to my HIV medication,” says Rusti Miller-Hill. “But at another facility I was transferred to, I received good HIV care. Whether a person receives quality care should not be the luck of the draw depending on which facility you end up serving time in.”

Rusti, the Co-Chair of the Coalition for Women Prisoners’ Conditions/Reentry Committee and the Chair of the Women’s Positive Network, was one of the dozens of advocates who spoke out about their experiences with HIV care in prison at an August 31 rally and press conference in support of the bill. The event, held across the street from Governor Paterson’s office, was organized by the CA and Coalition for Women Prisoners and co-hosted by the Women’s Initiative to Stop HIV/AIDS-New York of the Legal Action Center, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Latino Commission on AIDS, Women’s HIV Collaborative, and Women on the Rise Telling HerStory.

The bill’s key legislative sponsors, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Senator Thomas Duane, also joined supporters at the rally. Assemblymember Gottfried and Senator Duane have long been supporters of this bill and have passionately argued for meaningful improvements in prison healthcare.

Under the new law, DOH will begin monitoring state prison care immediately and local jail care two years later. DOH estimates that oversight of HIV and hepatitis C medical services in the state prison system would cost just under a million dollars annually–a small price to pay considering the bill’s projected long-term cost savings and positive impact on individual and community health. “This legislation has the potential to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, and prevent the advance of these diseases to a stage where the patient is more infectious and more difficult and expensive to treat. If this happens in even in a small fraction of cases, this legislation will pay for itself many times over,” says Assemblymember Gottfried.