At a time when the partisan divide in Trenton is particularly wide, what brought Republicans and Democrats together yesterday wasn’t a surprise: the effort to reduce drug overdoses.
It’s become a signature issue for Gov. Chris Christie, who signed two bills that will make it easier to dispose of unused dangerous medications and to coordinate state efforts to stem drug overdoses.
Christie said public officials and healthcare providers “must keep moving and working together, not just to fight the stigma of addiction, but to save lives and help rebuild families as effectively as possible.”
The new laws joined three others already signed by Christie in what is a 21-bill package that has advanced through the Legislature since last fall under the sponsorship of Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both legislative houses.
Some of the remaining pieces of the package are more controversial, including bills that would increase the reimbursement rate for Medicaid for drug, alcohol and mental-health treatments that have been proven to be effective and require doctors to describe the potential danger of addiction before prescribing opioids to patients.
Perhaps the most-debated bill in the package, which would require doctors to check a state database to insure that patients are not “shopping” for doctors to prescribe them potentially addictive drugs, has cleared a key hurdle with the endorsement of doctor groups after some of their ideas were added to the bill.
Christie refused to show his cards yesterday on the remaining 16 bills in the package. But he acknowledged his continued interest in the issue.
“Sen. Vitale and I have worked hard on these bills before,” Christie said. “These are good bills, which I support, that’s why I signed them. And if more good bills come to my desk, I’ll sign more.”
Vitale said before the bill signings that he still would like to see all all 21 bills reach Christie’s desk before the end of June.
Both bills signed by Christie yesterday in New Brunswick are typical of the cooperative approach of the past two years since Christie signed a law that provides immunity to those who aid overdose victims and allows the use of an opioid-overdose antidote.
The first bill, S-2369/A-2859, expands the state’s Project Medicine Drop program, which allows people to dispose of unused prescriptions at 126 secure locations, such as police stations, around the state. Christie said state residents have dropped off nearly 27 tons of unused medicine through the program since its launch in 2011.
The program is seen as important because unused prescriptions can be misused or diverted, feeding into the early stages of addiction.
Christie described drug addiction as “all around us, whether it’s on the street or it’s at home, in a person’s medicine cabinet. Too often, people think that drug abuse only pertains to heroin or cocaine.”
The second bill, S-2372/A-1436, gives the office of the attorney general the authority to coordinate law-enforcement efforts against opioid abuse with other departments, including the Department of Community Affairs, as well as with doctors.
Christie said future efforts under this program could draw on the example of statewide training of law-enforcement officials in how to administer naloxone, the opioid-overdose antidote. He said this has led to the reversal of nearly 900 overdoses across the state.
The state also has had success in laying the groundwork for increased use of the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) by requiring doctors to register for the program when they renew their licenses. The share of doctors registered for the PMP has reached 88.4 percent, Christie said. He added that the state recently became the first in the nation to debut a mobile application that allows access to the PMP.
Beginning with drug court, a program that diverts drug users who’ve been charged with nonviolent crimes from jail toward drug treatment, Christie has been consistent in attempting to reduce addiction, said Ronald Trautz, executive director of the New Brunswick Counseling Center, a nonprofit outpatient drug-treatment facility that hosted the bill signings.
Trautz noted an increase in powerful opioid prescription painkillers has made the need for programs like Project Medicine Drop more urgent.
“A kid at a high school could go into a medicine chest and find an Oxycontin or something that his mother was taking for pain or his father was taking for pain and he might take it, because he’s heard about it from his peers,” Trautz said. “It’s a way to reduce that.”
Trautz said he’s particularly eager for the bill mandating PMP use to become law. He said he’s seen patients who’ve gotten prescriptions from 10 different doctors before seeking drug treatment.
“Safely, 65 percent of our patients started out with pills, versus 25, 30 years ago, when everyone who came in was using heroin,” said Trautz, who has worked in addiction treatment for 40 years. “Years ago, you had to go to New York to get heroin, now you go to the corner to get it, and oxy’s the same thing.”