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Suit highlights suburban unease with addiction centers

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CHICAGO — A Chicago-based addiction treatment center, which like others nationwide has faced fierce opposition to opening suburban branches, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to force one suburb to stop blocking its expansion plans.

The suit brought by the Haymarket Center, the largest nonprofit treatment service in Chicago, says the city of Itasca’s rejection of a 240-bed facility in a former hotel violates U.S. laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, that bar discrimination against those recovering from addictions.

Elsewhere, including in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Michigan, communities have also thwarted the opening of such facilities. Treatment advocates say the resistance highlights how everyone seems to recognize the need for the facilities amid the ongoing opioid crisis — but bristle at putting them in their neighborhoods.

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said drug overdoses spiked during the pandemic, registering more than 100,000 overdose deaths from April 2020 to April 2021 — a U.S. record for a 12-month stretch. It was an increase of nearly 30% from the roughly 78,000 deaths over the same period the year before, the CDC reported.

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Many residents in Itasca, a middle-class community of 9,000 people, mounted a two-year battle against the Haymarket facility, saying they feared it would lead to an uptick in crime and lost tax revenue, as well as strain Itasca’s one-ambulance emergency service. Opponents held street marches and handed out yard signs that read, “No Haymarket.”

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Tuesday’s lawsuit says Itasca officials “strategically fostered, intentionally contributed to, and were unduly negatively influenced by this ‘not in my backyard’ opposition.” It accused officials of seeking pretexts to reject the proposal amid “discriminatory stereotyping of Haymarket’s mission” and the patients it would serve.

After some 35 hearings over two years, Itasca’s Plan Commission and the Village Board voted unanimously late last year against approving Haymarket’s plans. Wheaton, another Chicago suburb, rejected a similar 2018 proposal for a Haymarket branch.

The 83-page lawsuit says Haymarket went out of its way to address some of Itasca’s concerns, including by agreeing to contract a private ambulance to respond to calls from the treatment facility. It said it would have trained medical staff on-site 24 hours a day.

Before Tuesday’s filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn and other city officials denied discrimination underpinned their opposition, saying the proposed facility didn’t comply with criteria applied to everyone.

Pruyn said at a hearing before votes against the plans that his primary concern was a financial one. He contended that Itasca, one of the region’s smallest communities, “was going to have to absorb 100% of the cost, risk and burden of servicing a facility that would be accepting residents beyond Itasca.”

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“We learned more and more about the immense size and scope of Haymarket’s plan, and I kept coming back to one question: How could Itasca reasonably handle a facility like this?” he asked. He said he concluded that “Haymarket’s request on our village is unreasonable.”

Interest in the plan in Itasca was intense from the start. One early hearing in 2019 at a high school gym that was meant to give the public a chance to comment was postponed because the venue couldn’t accommodate the more than 1,300 people who showed up.

Some residents and regional leaders supported the Haymarket plans, saying a dearth of facilities outside major cities makes treatment for suburbanites less accessible. During one Itasca protest, a woman who supported the facility stood as protesters passed, holding a picture of her son who died of an overdose.

Pressure on Itasca won’t only come from the new civil litigation.

Two months ago, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney John Lausch sent a letter to Itasca’s mayor telling him that prosecutors are investigating whether the city violated federal anti-discrimination laws in rejecting Haymarket’s proposal. The letter included a three-page list of documents investigators sought, including copies of communications between Itasca officials.

Haymarket says that between 2017 and 2018, nearly 2,000 people recovering from addictions who reside in communities outside Chicago sought treatment at its Chicago facility, which included hundreds from the Itasca area, the lawsuit says.

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Those unable to pay for treatment at for-profit centers are particularly vulnerable, according to the filing. It says up to 30% of Haymarket patients have no insurance or rely on state-funded programs, and around 70% depend on Medicaid.

Haymarket cites figures that only some 10% of those who qualify for such services actually get it.

The lawsuit names, among others, the village, Pruyn and the Itasca Plan Commission as defendants. It seeks a court order allowing the facility to open, and also asks for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as the payment of attorneys’ fees.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm


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