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NJ Substance-Abuse Hotline Keeps Desperately Needed Help One Phone Call Away

Christie lauds the work -- and successes -- of hotline and call-takers who make sure someone is there to help 24/7

heather carns

Between July and the end of March, more than 42,000 alcoholics, drug addicts, and their families dialed into New Jersey’s substance-abuse hotline. Some 2,200 received follow-up calls to check on their welfare and another 1,100 were connected with treatment services, according to state figures.

While the numbers may seem small, the impact on the lives of those helped is enormous, according to program participants. And the addiction hotline is just one of several programs Gov. Chris Christie has launched or expanded in an effort to reduce the dangerous levels of opiate and other addictions that has plagued New Jersey in recent years.

“I was literally drinking myself to death,” recalled Heather Carns on Friday. She described herself as “Just an average girl who grew up on a farm in Burlington County” but developed alcoholism and, in the end, was in the emergency room multiple times a week suffering from complications caused by her drinking.

But a call to the hotline in December set in motion a recovery process and, within days, Carns had begun her life of sobriety. “I came in as bruised and battered as anyone else,” she said. “And I’m here to say that true, lasting, and fulfilling recovery is possible.”

Christie and acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly joined Carns and other people in recovery, along with call-takers Friday at the Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center, in Piscataway, which operates the hotline. The service is designed as a one-stop call center where experienced operators aim to connect struggling addicts with a level of treatment that makes sense for their condition.

“To make that call in the first place is very difficult. And it shouldn’t take a whole notebook of telephone numbers to find help when you do muster up the courage to tell someone, I’m an addict and I need help,” Christie said. He praised Carns for her commitment and lauded the call-takers for the work they do behind the scenes.

The hotline number is 1-844-276-2777 and professional help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Officials said callers are sure to get a live, trained, and caring individual -- not an automated operator or phone message. Many of the call-takers are recovering addicts themselves.

“There is no connection more special than the one that a peer makes,” explained Rosemarie Rosati, interim president of the behavioral health center.

While drug-treatment advocates in New Jersey have for years recommended a single contact point for all addiction services, previous efforts failed to take hold -- in part because of a lack of funding.

Christie outlined the new program in his 2015 State of the State address and committed $2.3 million to launch the program in July. He has included $2.7 million in the proposed FY2017 budget for the upcoming fiscal year and said that funding from the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will continue to pick up the rest of the tab, which totals $9 million.

The governor has also expanded the use of Narcan, a brand-name injection that can reverse a heroin overdose, and invested in ‘recovery coaches,’ former addicts who can help an overdose victim try to get and stay clean. He has called for spending $127 million next year to increase the reimbursement rates for physicians who provide mental-health and substance-abuse treatment for poor and disabled Medicaid patients.

While Christie has seen strong support for his efforts from the addiction community, experts have continued to point out that New Jersey still suffers a significant shortage of treatment spots -- especially in-patient beds for Medicaid recipients. The governor has suggested the increase in Medicaid rates will help address this deficit.

“It’s still difficult for people to get treatment in New Jersey today. It’s still confusing,” reporter Stephen Stirling told the Senate Health Committee earlier this year; Stirling developed an in-depth series on heroin addiction published last fall. “We have treatment centers with waiting lists that are weeks long and people die while they are waiting.”

While numbers are extremely hard to pin down, Stirling’s series suggested there are more than 128,000 active users currently and some 5,200 have died in the past five years. These numbers don’t account for the hundreds of thousands also addicted to pain pills, alcohol, and other drugs.

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