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New North Carolina Initiatives Tackle Illegal Discrimination Against People With Substance Use Disabilities

More than 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, with deaths rising fastest in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. In 2021, the overdose crisis took the lives of North Carolinians at the rate of ten per day, and last month, North Carolina’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confirmed that deaths continued at these high levels into 2022. Efforts to reverse course on the overdose crisis are hampered by widespread discrimination against people who use drugs and the routine denial of lifesaving medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD).

In response, the Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program and Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) have launched two initiatives to protect the right to health care and other supportive services for North Carolinians with substance use disabilities, including access to agonist medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in jails across the state.

“DRNC is very enthusiastic about launching these new programs with Vital Strategies to improve conditions in North Carolina for people with substance and opioid use disabilities,” stated Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of DRNC. “We must build community awareness and end discrimination to stop these tragic deaths. Disability must never be a barrier to accessing care.”

Discrimination in Health care and Supportive Services

As part of the partnership, DRNC will leverage data collection, individual legal assistance, systemic litigation, and related strategies to address discrimination in health care for people with substance or opioid use disabilities in North Carolina. Discrimination in health care against people who use drugs takes many forms, such as substandard care in emergency rooms after an overdose or denial of admission to a skilled nursing facility because someone is taking prescribed medications for opioid use disorder.

The project will incorporate several strategies:

  • Creating Know Your Rights and other materials for directly affected communities

  • Monitoring health care facilities and engaging communities to understand where and how discrimination takes place

  • Providing direct legal assistance to individuals experiencing discrimination based on their current or previous substance use

  • Developing a litigation strategy to target systemic drivers of discrimination.

Denial of Lifesaving Treatment in Jails

In addition to addressing discrimination against people with substance use disabilities in health care and other supportive settings, DRNC will investigate policies and practices related to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in North Carolina’s jail and detention facilities. This includes publishing a comprehensive report on the current state of MOUD access in these facilities, developing Know Your Rights and other educational materials for incarcerated individuals, and providing legal assistance to individuals held in jails or detention facilities who seek access to MOUD.

Photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash

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