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Explainer: Christie’s New Anti-Addiction Efforts Taking Shape in a Hurry

Several programs outlined in governor’s State of the State are already underway

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Less than a month after Gov. Chris Christie used his State of the State address to outline new efforts to combat New Jersey’s epidemic of opioid addiction, some drug users are already experiencing a benefit. The state is also moving forward with plans to boost payments -- perhaps significantly -- to mental-health and addiction-care providers, something experts believe is critical to the state’s ability to beat back the disease.

Ongoing mission: Christie often speaks of his pride in the state’s ongoing work to combat drug addiction, which has escalated dramatically over the past decade. He describes how New Jersey launched a drug-court program in 2013, requiring nonviolent addicts attend treatment instead of prison. He points to the decision a year later to start equipping emergency providers with Narcan, a life-saving injection that can reverse an opioid overdose almost immediately.

So far, it has saved 7,500 lives. In 2015, the state launched a hotline to connect callers with addiction-related services, which has logged 30,000 calls since July.

“There are few things that I’ve worked on harder as governor or that I believe in as strongly as this,” the governor said in his September 12 address. “Today, I’m asking you to join me in doubling down on our state’s fight against drug addiction.”

These new efforts include:

Recovery coaches: Christie pledged $1.7 million to expand a Department of Human Services pilot program that pairs trained, former drug users with addicts who arrive at hospital emergency rooms after being revived with Narcan. Now underway in Ocean and Monmouth counties since late January, plans call for expanding the program to some of the state’s other hardest-hit areas, including Passaic, Essex, and Camden counties.

Led by Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention, the program consists of 16 coaches or “recovery specialists” who are at least four years clean -- and better able to relate to drug users in crisis than most medical professionals. Barnabas Vice President Connie Greene told a state Senate panel last week that, in less than two weeks, the program has shown a 70 percent success rate in getting addicts to agree to enter treatment. Without these coaches, Greene said emergency teams had been unable to convince any of the 150 overdose patients they treated to get clean.

“Their mission is to intervene with this most difficult population and get them into treatment,” Greene said, underscoring how their personal experience is critical.

“They follow them for at least six weeks with a telephone call, with a warm hand,” she added, “whatever it takes to get them into treatment.”

Medicaid reimbursements: Christie also announced plans to commit an extra $100 million in state and federal funds to grow the payments to mental-health and substance-abuse counselors, something experts believe will help attract new providers and allow far more addicts to get the treatment they need. State officials are making progress behind the scenes on a rate study and are planning to hold four meetings to brief provider organizations between February 18 and February 25, according to a letter sent to about 50 caregivers. The process is still evolving and DHS was unable to provide additional information late Monday, but the letter suggests the increases -- scheduled to take effect in July -- could have a real impact.

“Rates will vary by service but overall, the new rates are expected to increase reimbursement collectively by about 20 percent and in some cases as much as 50 percent, representing a significant reinvestment of state savings and federal funds, and the largest increase overall to this community in over a decade,” read the letter from Assistant Commissioner Valerie Mielke.

Providers say that for years rates have stagnated at levels that don’t come near to covering costs; currently, inpatient facilities receive roughly $68 per day for treating Medicaid patients, for example. With rates so low, few providers are motivated economically to treat Medicaid patients, resulting in a significant deficit of treatment spots for drug users in need.

Treatment Prison: Another unique aspect of Christie’s push on addiction will take longer to come to fruition. The governor proposed creating the nation’s first “treatment prison” to house, and hopefully rehabilitate, inmates suffering from opioid addiction at the site of the former Mid-State Correctional Facility, near the Fort Dix military base in Burlington County.

The 696-bed prison closed in the spring of 2014 as the state’s prison population has shrunk. The Department of Corrections said the site is slated to reopen in early 2017; it will still be a prison, under DOC control, but the nearly 700 prisoners selected will receive drug-treatment programs in addition to traditional incarceration. Estimates suggest that nearly two-thirds of prisoners suffer from addiction, and traditional jails offer limited substance-abuse programs.

“The victims of addiction deserve treatment, whether they’re in the community or incarcerated. If we can break the cycle of addiction anywhere, we should break it,” Christie said in his State of the State, adding, “The program is yet another way to reduce recidivism and helps all of our people to become productive members of society again.”

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