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DOJ Considers Opioid Use Disorder an ADA Covered Disability and Pursues Claims Against a Provider for Refusing Medical Services to Opioid Users

The U.S. Department of Justice reached a January 31, 2019 settlement of an American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) Title III complaint against health care provider Selma Medical Associates relating to provision of medical services to an individual with opioid use disorder (“OUD”).  The settlement is notable for health care providers and employers as it makes clear that DOJ considers OUD as a disability under the ADA thereby triggering the full panoply of ADA rights for those with OUD.

The DOJ complaint was premised on the alleged refusal of Selma Medical to schedule a new patient family practice appointment after the patient disclosed he takes Suboxone.  Suboxone is a prescription medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating OUD.  The complaint further alleged that Selma refused to treat patients with narcotic controlled substances, including Suboxone, thus imposing “eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out individuals with OUD.”  The complaint also alleged a failure to make reasonable accommodations to policies, practices or procedures when necessary “to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”

Under the settlement, Selma agreed to:

  1. Not discriminate or deny services on the basis of disability, including OUD;

  2. Not use eligibility standards, criteria or methods of administration that tend to deny benefits on the basis of disability including OUD;

  3. To modify its policies as necessary;

  4. To draft and submit within 30 days for DOJ approval a non-discrimination policy and to remove any inappropriate existing policies;

  5. After DOJ approval, to adopt and disseminate to all employees the new non-discrimination policy;

  6. To train all management and employees within 60 days and annually for three years as to the new policy and ADA compliance with the initial training conducted live, with a Q&A opportunity, and by a trainer to be approved by DOJ;

  7. Submit compliance reports to DOJ for three years; and

  8. To pay compliant $30,000 in damages and a civil penalty to the U.S. of $10,000.

The DOJ-Selma Medical settlement is highly significant in an environment where in 2015, OUD affected 2 million people aged 12 and over (Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Vol. 169, Dec. 2016, pp. 117-127) and .6 million persons aged 12 or over had heroin use disorder (id.) and the lifetime percentage of individuals with Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV prescription OUD among adults 18 and over had more than doubled from 1.4% in 2001-2002 to 2.9% in 2012-2013 (id.), and likely higher today.  And, of course, this does not include those who are OUD for reasons other than prescriptions.  This means that health care providers are highly likely to encounter significant numbers of potentially challenging OUD patients.  DOJ has now made clear that providing the full range of care and services to such patients is required under the ADA – and that any failure to do so can lead to litigation, costly settlements, and adverse publicity.

pill bottleAll employers, not just health care providers, should take note of this settlement as it clearly means that employers will also need to reasonably accommodate employees who seek time off for treatment or other accommodations unless the employer cannot show the requested accommodations would be an undue hardship.

The Selma Medical settlement is also a reminder that health care providers should make sure they have appropriate non-discrimination policies in place as required pursuant to Health and Human Services regulations for compliance under Title III of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the non-discrimination requirements of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. 

©2019 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

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About this Author

Frank Morris, Health Care Attorney, Epstein Becker Law Firm
Member of the Firm

FRANK C. MORRIS, JR., is a Member of the Firm in the Litigation and Employee Benefits practices, heads the Labor and Employment practice in the Washington, DC, office, and co-chairs the firm's ADA and Public Accommodations Group.

Mr. Morris' experience includes:

  • Advising clients on and litigating employment, labor, disabilities, non-compete, confidentiality, benefits, information access and privacy, wage and hour, and general litigation matters in state and federal courts and administrative agencies...

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