The United States Department of Justice found last week that Pennsylvania’s court system is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for discriminatory practices against those taking medication to treat opioid use disorder (OUD).
The DOJ released the findings after determining that several of the commonwealth’s courts ban medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder in drug, mental health and DUI court, as well as during probation and parole.
In a letter detailing its findings to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the DOJ wrote:
“The Department has determined that the UJS [Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania], through the actions of its component courts, violated Title II of the ADA by at times prohibiting and at other times limiting the use of disability-related medication to treat OUD by individuals under court supervision. The county courts discriminated against the complainants in violation of the ADA by denying them an equal 2 opportunity to benefit from court services, programs, or activities—including probationary and treatment court1 supervision—because of their disability.”
The DOJ began investigating Pennsylvania’s UJS after three complaints – two against the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas and the other against the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas – alleged that the courts required probationers “to stop using their prescribed medication for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)” and to “stop using prescribed OUD medication to graduate from drug court,” respectively.
Complainant A, who is represented by the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit law group focused on fighting discrimination, said that they were forced to stop taking buprenorphine (also known by the trade names Suboxone and Subutex), a medication used to treat opioid use disorder, in order to comply with the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas policy, which prohibits the use of “any opiate-based treatment medication.”
By doing this, the courts denied the complainants “an equal opportunity” to benefit from drug court and probation programs, the DOJ found.
“The bans and limitations on use of OUD medication imposed by the Jefferson and Northumberland County Courts, and by other UJS treatment courts, for individuals under court supervision constitute discriminatory methods of administration that violate Title II of the ADA, the DOJ wrote in its letter. “These bans and limitations subject qualified individuals with OUD to discrimination and impair or defeat accomplishment of the objectives of the UJS programs in which these individuals participate.”
“I feel vindicated,” Complainant A said in a statement. “Where I’m from, there’s unfortunately a lot of people who have been affected by the drug epidemic, and when the court put that order in place, it affected a lot of people.
“When I first heard this news, I got choked up because I would have been dead,” they said. “Suboxone saved my life – there’s no doubt in my mind. There are so many people that need the same help and would benefit from medication for opioid use disorder. We don’t need to bury anyone else.”
2020 was the second deadliest year for accidental and undetermined drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, with the loss of more than 5,000 people in 2020. 2017 saw the highest number of accidental and undetermined drug overdose deaths at more than 5,400 people, according to state data.
“Pennsylvania recorded the fourth highest number of drug overdose deaths in the nation from May 2020 to April 2021,” Sara Rose, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania said in a statement. “We hope that Pennsylvania courts will work with the DOJ to ensure that people with opiate use disorder receive the treatment they need and are entitled to receive.”
Pennsylvania court administrators have seven days to respond to the DOJ’s Feb. 2 letter and corrective measures, which include policy revisions, educational training and paying compensatory damages.
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