According to the latest statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 42,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2016. That amounts to 116 people per day. Of those, 40 percent were the result of prescription drug abuse.
Needless to say, the opioid crisis has reached pandemic proportions, and could be one of the greatest public health crises of our time. Thankfully, the government's response has been to step up its efforts not only to research the scope of the problem but also to take specific actions to correct it, such as increasing research and support for drug rehabilitation programs.
One of the most promising programs has been medically assisted drug replacement therapy, which recently became the center of a legal controversy involving disability discrimination.
Here's what happened
According to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Baltimore, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged that Swedish car manufacturer Volvo illegally discriminated against a potential hire because of his use of a drug called suboxone, a common drug replacement for recovering opioid addicts. Under medical supervision, the man had well been on his way to recovery, and was initially offered a position at a Volvo manufacturing plant in Maryland.
However, the company rescinded their offer upon the applicant's explanation that he was taking suboxone as part of his recovery. The EEOC took up the man's case and filed suit against the company, alleging that he had been unfairly discriminated against based on his disability, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
According to the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees or potential hires with disabilities. The agency asserted that the company failed to conduct an internal assessment of how the drug might affect the man's ability to do his job. It also failed to explore whether any reasonable accommodations could or should have been made, as required by the ADA.
The court agreed, and the man was awarded $70,000 in compensatory damages. Volvo was also required to update its ADA compliance training and policies to clearly identify how it will handle cases of lawful prescription drug use in the future at this Maryland facility. Additionally, it must report back to the EEOC on any future disability discrimination complaints.
So does the ADA protect recovering drug addicts?
The short answer appears to be yes. As cases like this one prove, disability discrimination in any form is illegal. Those who actively seek to escape the throes of addiction should be treated like anyone else with a chronic illness or permanent disability. If anything, this verdict holds out the hope that more companies will do the right thing as others undergo treatment and seek to regain their livelihoods.