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PRESS RELEASE: New Initiative Will Tackle Healthcare Discrimination Against People Who Use Drugs

For Immediate Release:

March 2, 2023

Media Contact:

Tony Newman:  tnewman@vitalstrategies.org; 646-335-5384

Ben Carter: ben@kyequaljustice.org; 502-303-4062

More than 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021 in the United States, with deaths rising fastest in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. In Kentucky, the rate of fatal overdose continued at high levels, rising 15% from 2021, and has more than doubled among Black Kentuckians in recent years. Yet widespread discrimination against people who use drugs and the routine denial or restriction of lifesaving medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) undermine efforts to curb the overdose crisis. In response, Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center (KEJC) have launched a new initiative to protect the right to healthcare and other supportive services for Kentuckians with substance use disorder (SUD) or who use drugs.

“Access to food, healthcare, and shelter are human rights. Period. No one should be denied them because they have substance use disorder, and this partnership helps us make these essential rights a reality for more Kentuckians,” said Ben Carter, Kentucky Equal Justice Center’s Senior Litigation and Advocacy Counsel. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to hire staff who can work exclusively toward eliminating the many forms of discrimination that Kentuckians who use drugs encounter. KEJC has always done its best work when working alongside national experts like Vital Strategies and the Legal Action Center, as well as our community-based partners here on the ground in Kentucky.”

The project will increase awareness of substance use disorder discrimination in healthcare across Kentucky through engagement with civil legal aid organizations, materials to inform people of their rights, and networking with community coalitions to reach people who can benefit from the project’s anti-discrimination resources and focus. Discrimination in healthcare against people who use drugs can take many forms, such as substandard care in emergency rooms following an overdose or denial of admission to a skilled nursing facility simply because someone is taking prescribed medications for opioid use disorder. Through its work on this initiative, KEJC will provide legal assistance to individuals in need of help and also identify opportunities for more systemic change through impact litigation.

“Federal civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide critical anti-discrimination protections to ensure people who use drugs can access health care and other supportive services” said Kate Boulton, Senior Legal Technical Advisor for the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies. “People who use drugs are frequently and illegally discriminated against, and they should have a place to turn for legal support that helps uphold their rights to effective treatment and services. We are excited to partner with KEJC on this critical project to promote access to the full continuum of evidence-based, life-saving services for people who use drugs without fear of facing unlawful discrimination.”

The collaboration between KEJC and Vital Strategies builds upon each organization’s track record including KEJC’s multi-function model that incorporates deep community engagement and outreach in areas such as food justice and workers’ rights. The project also represents the state-level implementation of Vital Strategies’ joint initiative with the Legal Action Center to enforce and expand anti-discrimination protections for people who use drugs across the country.

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. Our overdose prevention program works to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven policies and interventions to create equitable and sustainable reductions in overdose deaths. Work across seven U.S. States is supported by funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Overdose Prevention Initiative, launched in 2018, and by targeted investments from other partners.

About Kentucky Equal Justice Center  

Kentucky Equal Justice Center was formed in 1976 to work with all the civil legal services programs in Kentucky on things best done cooperatively. We serve as a watchdog and advocate for and with a wide range of low-income Kentuckians, from children to elders in long term care, and keep in touch with a network of poverty law offices where people bring real life problems.

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