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Lawsuit against Johnson City, state agency challenges denial of methadone clinic citing federal law violations

Jennifer Sprouse • Jul 9, 2013 at 7:24 PM

A complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville Monday against the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency and city of Johnson City, citing violations of the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act for not allowing Tri-Cities Holdings LLC to locate a methadone clinic in the city.

James Dunlap, representing Tri-Cities Holdings LLC, said Tuesday evening that the denial by both THSDA and the city of Johnson City, including also the City Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals, to allow the clinic to locate at the proposed clinic site at 4 Wesley Court, is not giving people needing opiate treatment proper access to care. He said that a person wanting to get better, as well as not using illegal opiates at the time, is considered a qualified disabled person under both the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s a violation of federal law. You can’t do that,” Dunlap said. “You can’t discriminate against disabled people and that’s not me saying that, that’s federal courts across the United States. Federal law says they’re disabled and you can’t discriminate against disabled people, for example, denying them reasonable access to medical treatment for their disability.”

Dunlap said that new patients, including pregnant opiate-addicted women, are reportedly being forced to drive around 9,000 miles in the first 90 days of treatment, because there is no standard of care clinic within 50 miles of Johnson City.

He said the opiate treatment program includes three main areas of therapy — abstinance, buprenorphine and methadone.

“Normally, 80 percent of people that go to opiate treatment programs find that methadone is the most effective treatment for their opiate addiction, but for some reason Johnson City leaders and some people in the community don’t want it. Even though it’s the standard of care treatment for opiate addiction and certainly, unquestionably ... it’s the standard of care for pregnant women who are addicted to opiates,” Dunlap said.

In the complaint it states that “opiate-addicted residents of the Johnson City area currently must drive between 100 miles and 200 miles round trip for treatment to an Opioid Treatment Program located in either Weaverville ... Boone, North Carolina, or Knoxville ... because there is not an Opioid Treatment Program in or near Johnson City.”

Dunlap said because of the miles traveled for treatment, patients often times are driving exhausted, and having a closer clinic could alleviate accidents.

Attorney Erick Herrin, who represents Johnson City, said in an email Tuesday night that “on June 26, the state’s Health Services Board voted to deny Tri-Cities Holdings a Certificate of Need for a methadone clinic in Johnson City. As a result, Tri-Cities Holdings is suing not only the City but the state. The City has not yet been served with this lawsuit but we are aware of it.

“The role of the Health Services and Development Agency is to thoroughly examine the proposal submitted by Tri-Cities Holdings, and they found that the proposal did not sufficiently address the needs of an addiction recovery program. The City understands and supports the decision of the Health Services Board with respect to this particular clinic,” Herrin’s statement said.

A certificate of need for the methadone was filed by Steve Kester, a co-owner of Tri-Cities Holdings, in March.

According to Kester’s research, approximately 1,000 people in the Tri-Cities region were in need of opiate addiction treatment. A suit was filed on April 19 on behalf of Tri-Cities Holdings, which stated Johnson City’s refusal to grant a permit for the clinic caused financial damage and forced opiate addicts to travel long distances, as well as violated the ADA.

In June, U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer dismissed the lawsuit, saying the plaintiff’s claims were not “ripe for decision” because it was impossible for the court to know whether the alleged harm would ever happen.

THSDA denied the CON on June 26.

Related articles:

Update: Proposed Johnson City methadone clinic deniedBoth sides of methadone clinic issue have say at public hearing

Proposed Johnson City methadone clinic hearing scheduled for late May

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