TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida may have to pay millions to treat as many as 20,000 inmates after a federal judge ruled state prison officials failed to properly care for felons infected with the hepatitis C virus.

The Miami Herald reported U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker on Friday ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to treat inmates who test positive for the viral infection with direct acting antiviral drugs, a 12-week treatment that now costs about $37,000 per patient.

Walker concluded the state prisons system had failed to properly treat inmates due to a lack of funding. He told the state that he wanted a plan submitted by Dec. 1 that included timetables that showed how Florida would comply with the order.

"This court will not tolerate further foot dragging," Walker wrote.

The class action lawsuit was filed in May by three inmates who had been suffering from hepatitis C but were denied treatment from both the state and the private companies contracted to provide medical care in the prison system.

Walker said the state was "deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs" and noted that only 13 inmates of the more than 7,000 eligible had ever been given the antiviral drugs, and three of them were given treatment after being named plaintiffs in the case.

"If these inmates are not treated, they will undoubtedly suffer irreparable injury," Walker wrote.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection spread by exposure to blood or blood products. The most common way people acquire the infection is through intravenous drug use.

It is not known what the total cost of the testing and treatment might be, but in the agency's latest budget request, submitted after the lawsuit was filed, it asked for $19.5 million to treat 500 inmates. Treating the 7,000 to 20,000 inmates the department's expert says may be eligible could cost the state $200 million to $700 million more.

Michelle Glady, a department spokeswoman, said the state has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.

"FDC is absolutely committed to ensuring all inmates in our custody are provided medically necessary treatment that is in line with national standards and our constitutional responsibilities," Glady said in a statement provided to the newspaper. "We're reviewing the order closely and we'll be determining a plan of action."

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Information from Miami Herald: http://www.miamiherald.com/