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Rise in Drug-Treatment Admissions in NJ Reveals Progress of a Plague

With heroin and opiate abuse on the rise in New Jersey, data and anecdotal evidence tell heartbreaking tale of addiction and death

An increase in heroin and opiate addiction in New Jersey has fueled a rise in drug treatment admissions over the past five years, and heroin and other drug-induced deaths have also risen, state and federal data show.

The numbers tell only part of the story. Yesterday, Sens. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex and chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, held the first of a series of community discussions throughout the state on heroin and opiate abuse in Ocean County. The county prosecutor's data on dozens of overdoses and the stories of those who lost family members to drug addiction were heartbreaking and convinced him the state needs to move quickly to take greater action to help addicts get help.

"His (the prosecutor’s) frustration and one that I share is what's next for the people who have overdosed?" said Vitale, who is sponsoring a wide-ranging 21-bill package to deal with the problem. "There is certainly a law enforcement component to this, but we can't arrest our way out of it. When there is a demand, there is always going to be a supply."

Among the ways Vitale's package seeks to increase and enhance treatment are bills that would require health-insurance plans to cover behavioral healthcare services when medically necessary and increase Medicaid reimbursements for some behavioral healthcare.

Anecdotal stories of the skyrocketing of the use of heroin and other opiates are backed up by data from the state Department of Human Services. According to annual substance-abuse reports, the number of treatment admissions, both inpatient and outpatient, for heroin or opiate addiction, rose by more than a third between 2008 and 2013 to 32,607 or nearly half of all treatment admissions. In 2008, 38 percent of those with a drug or alcohol problem sought help for heroin or opiates. Last year, that class of drugs accounted for 45 percent of all admissions.

Data also backs up the contention that Ocean County is ground zero for New Jersey's problem. There were nearly 4,000 treatment admissions for heroin and opiate addiction in Ocean County last year, more than double the amount in 2008 and more than 1,000 higher than the county with the next largest number -- Essex, which had 2,666 heroin admissions. In Ocean, Atlantic, Gloucester, and Sussex, more than half of treatment admissions were for heroin and opiate abuse. Statewide, the number of deaths from heroin overdoses rose by more than a quarter between 2007 and 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, to 131, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Multiple Cause of Death database. The number of overdoses due to all opiates rose by almost 100 over that time, to 393. All drug-induced deaths rose by about 30 percent, to 1,042 in 2011, the data shows.

Given the scope of the problem, Vitale is hoping for quick action on his bill package. He expects about half the bills to move through the health committee next Thursday and would like to see most or all of the bills sent to Gov. Chris Christie's desk sometime next month and hopes the governor will sign them.

"This is a bipartisan effort," said Vitale, who was joined by Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, at the discussion yesterday and in sponsoring some of the bills. "We are hopeful, as he has expressed support for this issue."

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