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State court system accused of discrimination against people with opioid use disorder

Carolyn Kaster

On today’s episode of The Confluence:

U.S. Department of Justice sues the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over bans of addiction control medication
(0:00 - 5:50)

The state Supreme Court is under scrutiny after some county court judges banned or limited the use of opioid addiction medication. The U.S. Department of Justice claims Pennsylvania’s top court has authority over county courts, alleging they have responsibility in what’s being seen as discrimination.

“The [Justice] Department had received complaints that a Jefferson County judge had issued a blanket order requiring people under court supervision to quit opioid use disorder medication,” explains Ed Mahon, an investigative reporter for Spotlight PA, an independent non-partisan newsroom. “That investigation eventually led to a lawsuit earlier this year, and the Justice Department is suing the entire court system, not individual, not individual county judges.”

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Mahon reports the Justice Department looked into eight counties where those experiencing opioid use disorder were denied medication for treatment programs.

“The argument here is it's illegal to deny access to these programs simply because someone is using opioid use disorder medication,” says Mahon.

Lawyers for the state Supreme Court claim that the Justice Department should not hold it accountable for isolated incidents in lower courts. However, if the court is found to be responsible, the Department of Justice is asking that it pay damages to those who were barred from the medication.

State and local officials call for a registry for short-term vacation rentals
(5:54 - 16:21)

In 2018 state lawmakers reformed the tax code to include a 6% tax on owners of vacation rental units through online platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. The tax was to be collected by those companies and sent to the state. But when it comes to collecting fees on county hotel taxes, some are concerned many units are falling through the cracks.

Somerset County Treasurer Tony DeLuca took note of this deficit, and personally scrubbed through vacation rental websites, to find the properties that were unaccounted for.

“Just in the last two months, we recovered almost $50,000 in taxes, that were going back to 2016,” says DeLuca. “We’re going back to 2016 and [beginning with] the property owners that had the rentals and requested they give it to us.”

According to DeLuca, other counties are experiencing the same issue. A bipartisan group of state legislators have introduced legislation that would address this issue by creating a registry for these units that would fall under the Department of Revenue.

Rep. Sara Inamorato, a sponsor of the legislation, says she signed onto this legislation in part to lower the cost of housing.

“I live in Lawrenceville and if you type in ‘Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh’ on Airbnb, you're going to get close to 900 listings of available units,” says Innamorato. “If you start to look at the economics of that, we are actually reducing the supply of housing in these rapidly gentrifying areas in Pittsburgh.”

A previous version of the bill passed the house in 2018, but stalled in the Senate. Innamorato says that the bill won’t likely be advanced in this legislative session.

Pitt astronomer explains some of first images from James Webb Space Telescope
(16:24 - 22:30)

Since its launch last Christmas, space enthusiasts and astronomers have been waiting for the first images to come from the James Webb Space Telescope. This telescope promised to deliver some of the best images in the galaxy.

Rachel Bezanson, an observational astronomer and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her project was one of 286 chosen by NASA to be captured by the telescope.

One of the images from the telescope, shows astronomers an unprecedented view of the Carina Nebula. The infrared technology on the James Webb Space telescope is able to capture light beyond what past telescopes were capable of taking in.

“If you look at a before and after in [the Hubble Space Telescope] versus [James Webb Space Telescope]... you don't see the glittery stars that are newly forming inside,” says Bezanson. “And that's because the dust gets in the way. But in the infrared, we peer right through.”

An image of the Carina Nebula from the James Webb Space Telescope (above), compared to an image of the same nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Top image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Bottom image: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley).
An image of the Carina Nebula from the James Webb Space Telescope (above), compared to an image of the same nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Bezanson’s project is expected to be observed this fall, with more images to come in 2023.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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