US: Discrimination based on opioid treatment violates law

The US Department of Justice is warning employers, healthcare providers and others not to discriminate against people who are using prescribed medication to treat opioid addiction

A deepening opioid epidemic is prompting the US Department of Justice to warn about discrimination against those who are prescribed medication to treat their addictions.

“People who have stopped illegally using drugs should not face discrimination when accessing evidence-based treatment or continuing on their path of recovery,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.

The nation’s addiction overdose crisis has intensified in recent years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last year that more than 100,000 people had died from overdoses over a 12-month period, the highest level ever recorded.

Most of the deaths are linked to opioids, which include prescription painkillers, morphine, heroin and potent laboratory-made drugs such as fentanyl that often are mixed into the supplies of other illegal drugs.

The guidelines give examples of possible violations: A doctor’s office denying care to patients receiving treatment for opioid addiction; a town refusing to allow a treatment facility if the opposition is based on residents’ hostility toward people with addictions; a jail barring inmates from taking prescribed medication to block opioid addiction.

In February, the department sued the judicial system in Pennsylvania, alleging that it prohibits or limits people in some court supervision programs from using medication to treat opioid use disorder. In a filing, Pennsylvania officials said they had taken steps to “enhance awareness in the few, discrete judicial districts involved,”

The US reached a settlement with Massachusetts courts last month over claims, prompting the courts to change their practices.

The government last month also reached a settlement with Ready to Work, a Colorado agency that provides services to the homeless. It was accused of denying admission to one would-be participant because she was on medications to treat opioid use disorder. In addition to stopping the discrimination, Ready to Work was required to pay the person who complained $7,500.

The department also sent a letter in March to the Indiana State Board of Nursing over its decision to remove a nurse from a required licensing program over her use of medication to treat an addiction. A spokesperson for the board did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Justice Department document notes that federal law does not protect people who are using illegal drugs. A drug rehabilitation program, for example, would not be violating the law if it kicked out a participant who routinely kept using drugs.

But the guidelines do say that a person who uses opioids legally prescribed to treat pain could not be fired because of it.

“The Justice Department is committed to using federal civil rights such as the ADA to safeguard people with opioid use disorder from facing discriminatory barriers as they move forward with their lives,” Clarke said.

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