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DOJ: Pa. county courts can't block access to addiction meds

The Lackawanna County Courthouse, located in downtown Scranton.
Aimee Dilger
The Lackawanna County Courthouse, located in downtown Scranton.

Pennsylvania’s state and county courts cannot prevent people from taking addiction management medications while participating in treatment programs, according to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month.

The state’s court system must pay six complainants a total of $100,000 and must report back to the DOJ with anti-discrimination policies and training sessions for judges and other court personnel.

The federal lawsuit filed in 2022 named the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court and several county courts. In court documents, DOJ prosecutors alleged the Courts of Common Pleas in Lackawanna, Northampton, Butler and Jefferson counties violated the ADA by denying access to medications for opioid use disorder.

While incarcerated, an unnamed Lackawanna County man was forced to withdraw from buprenorphine, a medication he had used to manage an addiction for over 10 years, according to an amended DOJ complaint filed last spring. The complaint alleges a county policy prohibited the man from legally restarting his treatment while under court supervision. The Food and Drug Administration approved the medication to treat opioid addiction in 2002.

Sally Friedman, senior vice president of policy advocacy at the Legal Action Center, referred a similar complaint to the DOJ from a Jefferson County woman. The New York-based legal service center called the settlement “historic,” saying it’s the first agreement with a state court system to protect addiction medication access under the ADA.

“It sends a message to courts across the country that it is illegal discrimination for judges to interfere with people’s life-saving medication to treat their opioid use disorder,” Friedman said.

“The [Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas] had a written order that no one under the court’s supervision could take methadone or buprenorphine, which are the two most effective medications to treat opioid use disorder, and if you were on those medications, you had to be off within 30 days.”

While out of county prison on parole, the unnamed Lackawanna County man – in court documents listed as “Complainant F” – objected to court supervision policies, resumed taking the addiction medication and as a result was later returned to prison, the federal complaint alleges. Prosecutors argued that those events, which landed the man in mandated in-patient rehab, is at-odds with federal ADA requirements.

As part of the agreement, PA Courts must report back to the DOJ with anti-discrimination policies and promises for ADA compliance training sessions.

“All the courts, all the judges and treatment court professionals in the whole state system are going to have to undergo training about addiction and medications to treat it,” Friedman said. “Everybody has to do that under the settlement.”

In a statement to WVIA News, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) says ADA regulations and policies are already in place and the settlement doesn’t change that:

“All Pennsylvania judicial districts are required to comply—and do comply—with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus, there will be no policy changes that will significantly affect county courts. In other words, although county courts may adopt the policy terms attached to the settlement, those terms are consistent with current policies and practices.”

The agreement sets forth a policy adoption and reporting timeline. Within 60 days, the state’s court system should “encourage all judicial districts” to update ADA policies, specifically with language detailing medications for opioid use disorder, and within 90 days county courts should officially adopt those policies. Within six months, the AOPC must show the Department of Justice that the court system has taken steps to follow the settlement.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.