Thursday, February 8, 2024

Feds Tell States to Cover Hep C Medications, Regardless of Substance Use

By: Ranier Simons, ADAP Blog Guest Contributor

The right to health is a human right recognized in many international human rights documents, such as the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Constitution.[1,2] According to the WHO, “Countries have a legal obligation to develop and implement legislation and policies that guarantee universal access to quality health services and address the root causes of health disparities, including poverty, stigma and discrimination.”[1] To that end, in recent history, the United States Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have found it necessary to intervene in order to protect citizens’ right to health. 

U.S. Department of Justice
Photo Source: U.S. Department of Justice

The DOJ Civil Rights Division issued a letter to state Medicaid administrators on January 24, 2024, reminding them of their obligation to ensure that their programs allow people who have both Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Hepatitis C (HCV) to access direct-acting antivirals (DAAs).[3] In the letter, the DOJ and HHS reiterate Medicaid agencies are required to grant this access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the Act, states cannot discriminate against people with disabilities, which includes SUD. SUD qualifies as a disability because it “substantially limits one or more major life activities and interferes with the operation of key bodily functions.”[5]

In 2022, the DOJ reached a settlement agreement with Alabama Medicaid after an investigation of its Medicaid policy. It was denying access to DAAs for people who had consumed drugs or alcohol six months prior to starting treatment and denying payment if they used any drugs during their treatment. The DOJ accused Alabama Medicaid of “imposing non-medically indicated sobriety restrictions for HCV treatment, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”[4] There was no scientifically evidence-based reasoning for the restriction. 

Alabama Medicaid agreed to multiple stipulations and reporting requirements as part of the settlement. They were required to reverse their sobriety policy for HCV treatment and agree not to create any further restrictions, such as requirements for drug or alcohol counseling.[4] Additionally, Alabama Medicaid had to notify Medicaid providers of the change and inform the  Alabama Board of Medical Examiners and the Alabama Department of Public Health.[4] One notable requirement was notification of all Medicaid recipients of the change, thus informing them of their rights. Interestingly, in the settlement, Alabama Medicaid denied any acknowledgment of any violation of the ADA but framed their cooperation as an amicable negotiated resolution to the matter.[4]

Substance Use Disorder
Photo Source: Arkansas Medical Society

The DOJ utilized the ADA in 2020 to reach a settlement with Massachusetts General Hospital.[6] Massachusetts General Hospital denied a cystic fibrosis patient access to be listed on the lung transplant list because he was taking suboxone, a drug used to treat dependence on opioids. The cystic fibrosis damaged his lungs so severely that he needed a lung transplant to live. As part of the settlement, Massachusetts General Hospital paid $170,000 to the patient and $80,000 to his mother.[6] The hospital additionally agreed to give ADA training to its staff and end its discriminatory policy. The patient ended up receiving a lung transplant at the University of Pennsylvania.[6] Selma Medical, Charwell Operating Nursing Facility, Athena Health Care Systems, Alliance Health, New England Orthopedic Surgeons, and King’s Daughters Medical Center are other providers that reached settlements with the DOJ after violating the ADA by denying healthcare to patients taking medication for SUD.[6] 

Utilizing the ADA to ensure health protections for people with SUD is a robust tool. However, under the ADA, protections against discrimination only extend to “a person in recovery who is no longer engaging in the current illegal use of drugs.”[7] Protections from being denied healthcare services is an exception or ‘carve-out’: “A person who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs can’t be denied healthcare or rehabilitation services because of their current use if they would otherwise qualify for these services.”[7] 

That is why the letter issued by the DOJ and HHS is important. Amplifying attention to the matter is a way to prevent harm before it happens since widespread understanding of the exception is lacking policy-wise and programmatically. Although people with SUD have rights, having to fight for their rights when denied care results in treatment delays and poor health outcomes. It is better to address and change policy before issues occur. The letter is guidance and an indication to entities that the DOJ can and will actively seek remedy against infractions. Optimistically, the threat of litigation is enough of a deterrent for entities to examine and modify their policies.

[1] World Health Organization. (2023, December 1). Human rights. Retrieved from,of%20physical%20and%20mental%20health.

[2] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. n.b. The Right to Health. Retrieved from

[3] Department of Justice. (2024, January). Letter to State Medicaid Administrators. Retrieved from

[4] Settlement Agreement between the United States of America and the State of Alabama's Medicaid Agency. (2022, December 5). Retrieved from

[5] U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Divison. (2022, April 5). The ADA and Opioid Use Disorder: Combating Discrimination Against People in Treatment or Recovery. Retrieved from

[6] Rahim, H. (2023, Decemeber 26). Does the ADA protect people with substance use disorder from health care discrimination? Retrieved from

[7] ADA National Network. (2020). The Americans With Disabilities Act, Addiction, and Recovery for State and Local Governments. Retrieved from

Disclaimer: Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about public health-related issues and updates. 

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