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Christie Emphasizes Single-Number Hotline for Drug-Addiction Services

New phone line could be integrated into current state system; Democrats, advocates eager for funding details

David Greenwald
David Greenwald, a peer specialist at NJ Connect for Recovery who works with those with addictions and the mentally ill, is in recovery from a heroin addiction.

Among the goals that Gov. Chris Christie alluded to in his State of the State address were helping New Jersey’s beleaguered urban communities and easing the lives of people with drug addictions. A proposal announced by the governor in his speech could do both: a phone line to help those with addictions navigate the sometimes-bewildering array of available treatment services.

The announcement was greeted enthusiastically by advocates for those with addictions and legislators. The question now is whether Christie will back up the concept with state funding. The governor also announced a program to help addicts in prison reenter society. Again, there were no details as to how it would be funded.

Previous attempts to establish a statewide addiction hotline foundered, in part due to a lack of state funding, according to advocates.

The proposals were announced the same day that a leading advocacy organization for people with addictions and mental illnesses disclosed plans for its own helpline for individuals and their families.

Christie devoted nearly one-quarter of his annual address to addiction treatment, reflecting the growing importance of the issue as the number of overdose deaths continues to rise.

“If we have the tools to help those with this disease to save their own lives, then in my opinion it is a sin for us not to use those tools,” Christie said.

Christie said under his plan people with addictions would be able to make one phone call to access available services and resources anywhere in the state, including real-time information about treatment options and an immediate connection to a service provider.

Once the one-number phone system is in place, it will be extended to adults with mental illnesses, Christie said.

Christie also said that locations in Newark, Paterson, Atlantic City, Toms River, Trenton, and Jersey City would help addicted prisoners whose sentences were up r-enter society. “By directly connecting those who have suffered from addiction to the services they need at a most critical juncture, we are helping them avoid a cycle of dependency by transitioning them from government services to the workplace,” Christie said.

This isn’t the first time the state has attempted to establish a phone line focused on connecting residents to addiction services. Addiction-treatment referrals have also been advertised as one of the services offered through the state’s 211 line. However, a call placed yesterday to the hotline resulted in a voicemail message.

“We certainly think that a single point of entry for drug treatment is a great idea. Our question is: How is this different than the number we already have?” said Roseanne Scotti, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Scotti added that while it will be helpful to have a single phone line to help residents navigate available services, this wouldn’t change the fact that sometimes there are few services available. She said the state must put more funding into treatment.

“Making it easier for people to find the help they need is wonderful, but there’s still a lot of gaps in terms of access to treatment,” Scotti said. “If at the end the day, someone gets told there isn’t an available bed, they’re still not going to get the help they need.”

But Scotti said the governor’s proposals recognize that the current system isn’t working and reflect a growing statewide discussion on the need for improved access to treatment.

Debra Wentz, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, was pleased with both Christie’s proposal for a new addiction phone line and his support for a one-stop shop for prisoner reentry.

“I think it’s always good to have information that is a direct to link people to services, to provide people with options,” she said. She added that a prisoner re-entry program in Jersey City “has worked wonders,” adding that expanding it statewide “should reap positive results and make genuine inroads in helping ex-offenders become self-sufficient.”

Wentz added that funding details would be important. Christie’s budget message is tentatively scheduled for February 24.

“I think coordination plays a key role, but there is no substitute for funding when you want to expand services,” Wentz said.

Former Gov. James E. McGreevey has worked on prisoner reentry in Jersey City and serves on the Facing Addiction Task Force, which recommended the reentry proposal that Christie included in the speech yesterday. McGreevey said he is encouraged by Christie’s focus on the issue.

“The governor has provided tremendous leadership for the duration of his tenure,” on addiction treatment, McGreevey said.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), the chairman of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee, said that the state has struggled to match available addiction treatment services with the residents who need help.

Conaway noted that Christie’s proposal for a single point of entry could build on a bill he’s supported, A-3955/S-2644, for maintaining a database of available beds for inpatient treatment.

Conaway said he was encouraged by Christie’s focus on addiction treatment, but also said services must be backed with dollars.

“Whenever something is underserviced in healthcare, it is most of the time because there is too little money going to it,” said Conaway, a primary-care doctor.

Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth), CEO of behavioral-health provider Preferred Behavioral Health Group, said the benefits of having a dedicated phone line addressing addiction services would be “amazing.”

Angelini said the governor’s proposal could work in conjunction with a new phone line introduced by the Mental Health Association of New Jersey at a press conference she attended earlier yesterday in Toms River.

Through the NJ Connect for Recovery line, (855) 652-3737, those with addictions can talk with a certified alcohol and drug counselor, while family members can talk to a peer specialist who can share personal experiences. The line, which is sponsored by generic prescription drugmaker Actavis PLC, will coordinate its efforts with the 211 line, according to state officials.

Angelini noted that the state has seen a dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths in the past three years, and said that Connect for Recovery will be helpful in providing immediate counseling, while the proposed single-entry state line would be helpful in connecting residents with treatment services. She said the two services would be complementary.

David Greenwald, a peer specialist at the recovery line works with those with addictions and the mentally ill, is in recovery from a heroin addiction. He said he was excited about the possibilities raised by the Connect for Recovery line.

“Maybe if my family had a number like this to call when I was battling this addiction issue, maybe things could have been a little different, maybe I wouldn’t of had to overdose twice,” before being connected with appropriate services, Greenwald said. He said he would refer a young mother of three he knows who has already overdosed twice to the phone line.

Stephanie Mulfinger, who will direct the Connect for Recovery call center, said having peer specialists available would be helpful to families of those with addictions.

“Any addiction, and particularly this opiate epidemic, really is a family problem,” Mulfinger said. “There’s family collateral, there’s collateral damage, and family members are often caring for loved ones, trying to figure out the road to recovery, trying to negotiate resources, and they need their own support to do that.”

Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers, whose 29-year-old son William died from an overdose in October after a 14-year battle with addiction, said it’s essential to bring families and those with addictions a sense that support is available.

“You feel like you’re lost, you’re handling this yourself -- where do you turn, who do you call, where can you get the best advice -- at a time when time is so critical,” Akers said. “And that’s the most important point: You need help now; you can’t wait until next week, and to be able to pick up a phone and to have a live person be there for you -- I just wish it was available a while ago.”

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