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State Government Makes Slow Progress on Anti-Addiction Legislation

Only three bills enacted so far in 21-bill package, but most other measures are moving through the Legislature

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It may not be happening with the speed that advocates had hoped for, but the state government has been making progress in addressing the surge in overdose deaths from opioids.

More than six months after a 21-bill package addressing drug education, prevention, treatment, and recovery was announced, Gov. Chris Christie has signed three bills and is considering two others that are on his desk.

But that doesn’t mean the package has stalled. In fact, most of the other bills have been passed by the Senate or have been released by committees in one or both legislative houses.

Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said he was encouraged by the progress that the package has been making. He wrote many of the bills and helped bring together a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses who supported the package when it was announced in September 2014.

“They are all important because they are all part of the comprehensive [approach] of addressing the crisis,” Vitale said of the 21 bills, adding that he wants to see all of measures enacted to maximize the effectiveness of the legislation.

The first bills signed by Christie were:

  • S-2373/A3716, which requires the state to publish annual reports on the effectiveness of drug treatment programs;

  • S-2378/A3720, which extends the immunity for providing opioid-overdose antidotes to a range of healthcare professionals; and

  • S-2380/A-3712], which requires the state Departments of Human Services and Corrections to plan for addiction and mental-health treatment for inmates.

The bills on Christie’s desk would make Project Medicine Drop, which maintains prescription-drug disposal bins across the state, a permanent program, and would authorize the attorney general to coordinate a statewide anti-opioid-abuse effort.

Vitale said he’s worked closely with the governor’s counsel’s office, as well as with officials in the Departments of Health, Banking and Insurance and Human Services to shape the legislation.

One of the more controversial bills in the package is about to reach Christie’s desk: S-1998/A-3062, which would require doctors and other prescribers to check a statewide database to see if patients have been getting dangerous drugs from multiple sources.

Many doctors originally raised concerns about the time it would take to check the database, as well as the intrusion of government into the practice of medicine. But the fact that both houses of the Legislature agreed to advance the measure -- the Senate must concur with some changes made by the Assembly before sending the bill to Christie -- shows the importance of the issue. Ultimately, the state’s largest doctors group -- the Medical Society of New Jersey -- welcomed the final version of the bill.

Among the bills whose fate still must be resolved are measures that require that overdose information be reported to a statewide clearinghouse and mandate that doctors have a conversation with patients about the addictive nature of prescription opioids before the prescription is written.

“Those bills are still in the works,” Vitale said. “I’m hopeful we’ll get them done, but it’s the Legislature and everyone has an opinion -- and they’re entitled to.”

Vitale said he hopes to have the balance of the package passed by the end of May, adding that it will depend on the schedule of committee hearing and voting sessions.

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