The country’s top law enforcement agency is making it clear that denying health care and other vital services to people with substance use disorder (SUD) violates federal law.
In April of this year, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division released guidance outlining how the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 civil rights law meant to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else, applies to substance use disorders.
It is not a well-known element, but the law classifies SUD as a disability, meaning disfavoring someone for being in recovery or based on their past drug use is illegal. (The law does not extend its full protections to people still using drugs.)
Eliminating Barriers to Recovery
In the wake of the Justice Department’s guidelines, the pace of cases is picking up, with the government reaching agreements with or filing suit against institutions in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Colorado that were found to be in violation.
Increasingly, Justice Department attorneys are leveraging the law to try to overcome some of the rampant discrimination that people with substance use disorders face. The cases typically center on people who are penalized because they take medication for opioid addiction, and on people who are denied those medications, particularly in the criminal justice system.
The underlying argument rests on the idea that imposing barriers on treatment for a disability is tantamount to doing so based on the disability itself.
Enforcement to Create Change
The ADA considers as a disability any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities, or a history of such an impairment. Congress signaled that the definition should be interpreted broadly, and the protections extended widely, legal scholars say. Under that framework, people in recovery from opioid and other substance use disorders have disabilities and cannot be discriminated against.
The Justice Department is not the only agency responsible for enforcing the ADA. In 2018, for example, the automaker Volvo had to pay $70,000 to resolve a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after it allegedly refused to hire someone for being on Suboxone, a prescription medication commonly used in the treatment of opioid addictions. In May 2020, the federal health department reached an agreement with a West Virginia agency, after a couple was allegedly denied permission to adopt their niece and nephew because the uncle was on Suboxone.
Advocates say it is an overdue enforcement of a law that has been on the books for three decades, a policy that Justice Department lawyers have acknowledged they only started wielding in recent years. But the hope is that their advocacy will spark enough attention to motivate whole fields to change their policies, lest they want to duel with the Justice Department.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call the New England Recovery Center today at 1-877-MyRehab.