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Drug Users Respond to Christie’s Opioid Campaign, but Cost Raises Questions

Although it has reached millions of people and prompted many drug users to seek help, governor’s multi-million-dollar anti-addiction publicity has its skeptics

vanessa vitolo
Credit: NJTV News Online
Vanessa Vitolo, a star of the addiction ad campaign, joined members of Gov. Christie's cabinet for his State of the State speech.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s signature opioid-addiction campaign has reached millions in the mid-Atlantic region through billboards, online ads, and television commercials that feature him with individuals in recovery. It has also prompted a significant increase in the number of drug users and family members who have sought help for the disease.

But the cost of this effort — nearly $43 million since January 2017, including a $17.5 million year-long contract issued in mid-November — has raised eyebrows among some treatment providers, advocates, and state legislators, who were not consulted in allocating these funds. Some have questioned if the spending is also geared toward bolstering Christie’s tarnished legacy, and one veteran lawmaker has called for a detailed review of the deal, which extends long beyond Christie’s tenure in Trenton.

The campaign to support ReachNJ, a counseling and referral service launched early last year, is part of a larger effort to expand treatment capacity and access to these services – a hallmark of the governor’s last year - that Christie funded with $200 million in “lapsed dollars”,or line item budget surpluses. These uncommitted or unspent funds can be reallocated by the governor, without input from the Legislature, which usually plays a large role in developing the state’s annual budget.

Christie’s staff insisted the ads will end when the two-term Republican leaves office next week; Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is slated to be sworn in Tuesday. Christie faced significant criticism four years ago for his appearance in the Stronger than the Storm ad campaign, a $4.7 million publicly funded series designed to promote disaster recovery following superstorm Sandy, which prompted a federal inquiry.

Contract details

But the ReachNJ contract awarded in November — the third agreement the state signed for this work with Kivvit, a firm led by powerful New Jersey Democratic strategist Maggie Moran — runs for a year, with the potential for two year-long extensions, according to documents obtained by Politico, which first reported the details last week. In addition to hourly rates for work on the commercials, as well as print and digital materials, Kivvit agreed to an ad-placement fee of 5.5 percent of the total purchase, significantly lower than the industry norm.

Experts said that despite the worthy cause, $42.6 million — the total cost of four contracts issued over the past year — is a significant media buy, designed to fully saturate new and traditional communications channels, especially for a sitting governor who is leaving office. (For context, a relatively unknown Murphy spent a total of $19.2 million from his campaign for media time during last year’s primary and general elections, seemingly swamping the airwaves, according to state records.)

But Christie has insisted ReachNJ is a worthy cause, highlighting the ads during his State of the State address and introducing the star, 31-year-old Vanessa Vitolo, who joined members of his cabinet in Trenton for Tuesday’s speech. Opioid addiction has sent tens of thousands of Garden State residents to treatment each year and led to the death of nearly 2,000 citizens in 2017.

Vitolo “has been in recovery for over three years now from her heroin addiction and she has become the beacon of hope for so many New Jersey families suffering with addiction,” Christie said Tuesday. “Through our ReachNJ program, we are lowering the stigma of addiction and connecting desperate families with the hope that comes from addiction treatment.”

Future of ReachNJ in Murphy’s hands

The contract terms mean the future of the ReachNJ campaign is largely in Murphy’s hands. State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chair who has worked on addiction issues for years, urged the incoming governor to take a close look at the deal and what it has achieved so far.

“In addition, it would be prudent to determine what, if any, contract obligation exists beyond the Christie administration,” Vitale said. “The state has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to reach those who struggle. I remain skeptical until I know that any outreach and any program that we offer across the opioid epidemic is based on the best evidence possible.”

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According to the governor’s office, some 18,680 people contacted the ReachNJ program between January 2017 and late December. This ranged from an average of 28 calls per day from July through the first half of September — when the campaign had no TV ads running and only a limited online presence — to 82 daily contacts in December, when there was a full suite of television commercials and other media outreach.

A snapshot of one of the busiest weeks, in late December, showed nearly 500 people called the ReachNJ hotline (1-844-REACH-NJ), 54 logged onto the website chat feature and another four texted the service for help, according to data provided by Christie’s staff. Of these, 281 said they learned about the service on television; 77 had previous knowledge of the program, and 51 saw it on the Internet.

The governor’s office also provided ReachNJ data on the digital response, which showed the website attracted nearly half a million unique visitors between September and December 22, and nearly 10 million encountered an online version of the ad. Some 4,500 followed the campaign on Twitter and nearly 13,000 liked or shared the information on Facebook during that same period.

Volume up at other hotlines

But ReachNJ is only one part of a developing system, explained Carolyn Beauchamp, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of New Jersey. MHA operates NJCONNECT (855-652-3737), a counseling hotline for friends and family of drug users, funded in part with state dollars, and Beauchamp said the call volume to this service more than doubled during periods that the ReachNJ television ads were running.

“When they stopped showing (the ads) at some point, our volume dropped. There was a clear connection,” Beauchamp said. A comprehensive campaign with a real presence on broadcast TV helps to truly educate the public about the signs of addiction and reach drug users in crisis, or those trying to assist them, she said, praising the scope of ReachNJ. “You really need a broad campaign, and the broader the better,” Beauchamp added.

Beauchamp said some of the uptick at MHA reflected direct referrals from outreach to the ReachNJ line, through which trained counselors seek to connect callers who have employer-based insurance to appropriate treatment services. However, assuring that beds are available, that insurance covers the costs, and that the caller actually follows through are additional challenges, she noted, regardless of the campaign’s success.

Individuals covered by Medicaid or other public insurance programs are redirected from ReachNJ to a comprehensive, coordinated service run by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center. Christie has also championed the work of this system, which also maintains a hotline 1(844-276-2777) that logged 42,000 calls between July 2015 and March 2016, according to figures released in April 2016.

‘Ending the stigma’

“Any place we can coordinate is going to help people get access to treatment,” Beauchamp said. “We’re trying to link people into a fuller system of care.”

While state officials declined on Thursday to provide more detail on calls to the Rutgers service, the snapshot report from late December shows that 109 callers — more than one-fifth of those who contacted ReachNJ — were diverted to the Rutgers line that week; another 109 were referred to the MHA service. Christie’s staff said the bottom line is the program is working to get more people to reach out for help.

"Ending the stigma of opioid addiction and making it easier for families in need to reach treatment has always been our goals in the advertising campaign,” said Christie’s spokesman Brian Murray, praising the individuals who volunteered to be part of the ads. “With hundreds of New Jerseyans dying every month, the need for increased information and decreased stigma continues to be great. We hope the Murphy Administration will continue these effective efforts in months and years ahead."

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