Assemblymember Rosenthal: Legislation Passes to Expand Access to Medication Assisted Treatment, the Gold Standard in Harm Reduction, to People Incarcerated in State Prisons and County Jails

New York, NY Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal today announced that her bill requiring all state correctional facilities and county jails to provide incarcerated individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) with access to Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) has passed the New York State Assembly by a vote of 103-44.

The legislation moves New York State, which has been ravaged by overdose and substance use disorder, closer to universal access to MAT, which advocates and medical professionals herald as the gold standard in harm reduction.

“Addiction is a disease and MAT is healthcare,” said Assemblymember Linda B Rosenthal (D/WF-Manhattan). “It is the epitome of cruel and unusual punishment to deny incarcerated people who struggle with SUD access to MAT, medical treatment that is proven to reduce the symptoms of painful and potentially deadly withdrawal, while helping to curb cravings. It is vital that New York join the seven other states that already provide comprehensive addiction care to incarcerated individuals because these states recognize that doing so is humane and ultimately reduces recidivism and overdose rates.”

Once it is signed, the bill (A533/A1795) will require state and local facilities to provide access to all MAT drugs in addition to counseling and discharge and reentry planning, to ensure program participants are properly connected to providers. Participation in the MAT program cannot be compelled, and screening for eligibility will be made available to all. Currently, only a small fraction of the State’s correctional facilities offer an exceptionally limited MAT program. Riker’s Island has run a comprehensive and successful MAT program since 1987.

The bill, carried by State Senator Jamaal Bailey and passed in the Senate, will become law when it is signed by the Governor. The 2021-22 Final New York State Budget allocated $11 million to state prisons and $8.75 million to county jails to implement a MAT program. County facilities that do not have access to adequate funding or personnel to implement the program can apply for a waiver from the state.

“Nothing epitomizes the War on Drugs like caging a person struggling with substance use disorder and denying them access to lifesaving medical support that can relieve their suffering and save their life,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal. “Today, we move to relegate this barbaric reality to the past.”

“We are excited that this momentous bill has passed – it's been a long time coming, and it will save countless lives,” said Hiawatha Collins, board member and leader with VOCAL-NY’s Users Union. “With this bill, the legislature is putting an end to the practice of forcing people into inhumane withdrawal. This legislation ensures that they will have access to medication assisted treatment for their substance use disorders during their incarceration, their autonomy honored by offering all three forms of medication, and that there is a warm hand off with their care after their incarceration. Ultimately, however, we hope that this is a step towards ending the punitive approach towards drug use and moving towards a world without a drug war, where people who use drugs are treated with respect and given the care and support they deserve.”

“For too long, medications considered to be the most effective at reducing the harms of opioid use disorder and preventing fatal overdose have been locked out of New York’s correctional system where they are desperately needed. The rate of fatal overdose is especially high within the formerly incarcerated population – people who are newly released are 40 times more likely to die from overdose than the general population. DPA does not support the criminalization of substance use, but until New York fully embraces public health over incarceration, correctional facilities should provide those in need of care with evidence-based treatment. We applaud the Assembly for passing the long overdue legislation to provide access to evidence-based medications for treating opioid use disorder for people who are incarcerated and the Senate’s prior passage of this legislation. We urge Governor Cuomo to sign the bill into law immediately to prevent more overdose deaths in New York’s prisons and jails,” said Melissa Moore, New York State Director, Drug Policy Alliance.

Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said, “There is a well-documented opioid crisis nationwide, and New York State is no exception. The State Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in opioid overdose deaths in recent years and the risk of overdose from opioid use is especially dangerous for people who are or have been incarcerated. This bill will make medication available to incarcerated individuals, which will save lives. We thank Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Senator Jamaal Bailey for their courageous leadership in steering this legislation and we call on Governor Cuomo to sign the bill immediately."

“We at the New York Academy of Medicine applaud the Assembly passage of this historic bill to establish a statewide program for the use of medications for substance use disorders in New York State jails and prisons. Substance use disorder should be treated as a health issue, not a crime. Expanding access to evidence-based health care for incarcerated individuals is imperative to advancing health equity,” Judith Salerno, President of New York Academy of Medicine.

“COMPA thanks the New York State legislature and the sponsors, Assemblymember Rosenthal and Senator Bailey, for passing S.1795/A533, Medication-Assisted Treatment in prisons and jails. Only 6 of New York State's 52 correctional facilities currently offer medication-assisted treatment. Restricted access to MAT threatens the well-being of incarcerated people who face up to 12 times the increased risk of death from drug-related relapses upon release. This bill ensures that incarcerated people will have access to MAT and will reduce the cycle of recidivism and re-imprisonment while stemming preventable fatal drug overdoses and the transmission of infectious diseases,” said Allegra Schorr, President of the Coalition of Medication-Assisted Treatment Providers and Advocates (COMPA).

“This bill requiring medication for substance use disorder throughout New York’s jails and prisons will save lives and help heal families and communities, particularly of Black and brown New Yorkers who have been disproportionately impacted by racist drug policy and mass incarceration. We are in the midst of the worst overdose epidemic in decades, and as such, expanding access to evidence-based treatment, including in jails and prisons, is absolutely critical. The right to health care does not end behind bars, and this bill will ensure that incarcerated individuals receive the lifesaving care they need and deserve,” Christine Khaikin, Senior Health Policy Attorney, Legal Action Center.

“Providing medication assisted treatment to people while they are incarcerated is going to save lives without a doubt. Suboxone and methadone are the gold standard treatment for opioid dependence. We should also acknowledge that this is an important step symbolically towards approaching substance use as a public health issue and not a criminal legal one. In my experience, community members who are directly impacted refer to this bill being one of the most important ones in our state. Today, I'm thinking of all the lives we have lost to overdose just hours or days after leaving a jail or prison. Advocates have been working for years to get this bill passed and today is a celebration” said Emma Fabian, Executive Vice President of Harm Reduction, Evergreen Health.