Miriam Johnson

Miriam Johnson ’07 leads notable case that enables incarcerated individuals in the Maine State prison system to receive access to life-saving Hepatitis C medication

A legal team of Berman Simmons attorneys, Miriam Johnson ’07 and Taylor Asen, along with Peter Mancuso and Andrew Schmidt of Andrew Schmidt Law, recently reached a historic settlement with the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC). Under this agreement, the DOC has agreed to treat all incarcerated individuals who have chronic Hepatitis C. Historically, Hepatitis C patients in Maine DOC custody were only treated if they could show proof that their disease had progressed to the point of permanent liver damage. Now, all patients in Maine DOC custody will be treated with curative antiviral medication.

The claim was brought by Mathiew Loisel, who is currently incarcerated at the Maine State Prison, on behalf of himself and other patients with Hepatitis C. As of October 2017, the Maine Department of Corrections was aware that more than 580 Maine prisoners were infected with chronic Hepatitis C and yet were actively treating only three patients. Mr. Loisel is one of the more than 500 inmates who was denied treatment under the old Department of Corrections policies, but under the settlement agreement, will be treated within the next few years.

“Even before COVID-19 there was a lesser known epidemic making its way through Maine’s prisons: Hepatitis C,” said Attorney Johnson. “We are pleased that Maine’s correctional system recognized a public health problem and worked with us to come up with funding and policy changes, avoiding prolonged litigation. We are proud of Mathiew’s activism which brought this issue to our attention. The agreement we were able to reach with the state brings our corrections system in line with the community standard of medical care and the state’s obligations under the constitution.”

Hepatitis C is a life-threatening, communicable disease that attacks the liver, causing diminished liver function, cirrhosis, and liver failure.  Even in the initial stages of the disease, Hepatitis C can cause serious symptoms, including chronic fatigue, severe depression, arthritis, as well as an increased risk of heart attacks, diabetes, nerve damage, jaundice, and various cancers.

Medications approved by the FDA cure Hepatitis C in more than 90 percent of cases. The clinical standard of care, endorsed by a consensus of medical experts and associations, including the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, calls for administering these direct-acting antiviral medications to all persons with chronic Hepatitis C, even in early stages of the disease. The medication not only stops the progression of symptoms in the individual, but halts the spread of the disease in the community.

The spread of Hepatitis C is a growing public health crisis in Maine and throughout the U.S..Prevalent among incarcerated populations, it is estimated that approximately 17 percent of the U.S. prison population is Hepatitis C positive. “This resolution is reflective of the changing law as courts across the country start to hear cases related to Hepatitis C treatment. Hopefully, our settlement will provide a blueprint for those states where the administration has been more recalcitrant in finding a solution.”

Ms. Johnson handles medical malpractice cases at Berman & Simmons. “It is not lost on me,” said Attorney Johnson, “that I spent my 3L year at Maine Law in and out of the hospital. I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the fall of my final year. I recall getting the diagnosis and having to ask a classmate who had been a practicing physician before law school what in the world a sarcoma was. I got excellent medical treatment, a lot of support from the law school, and was declared cancer free by the time I sat for the bar exam the summer after graduation. But my eyes were opened to the fact that a lot of people receive substandard care for serious conditions. I bring that experience to all of my medical malpractice cases. The Loisel case was especially gratifying because we were not simply reacting to malpractice that had already happened, but were able to work proactively to change policies and prevent mistreatment from happening in the future.”