Bills Targeting Drug Abuse Seek to Build On Recent Legislative Successes

Andrew Kitchenman | January 6, 2016 | Health Care
Proposals for reducing overdoses include high schools for teens battling addiction and requiring coverage for new anti-abuse opioids

drugs substance abuse
Recent months have seen big advances for healthcare in New Jersey – especially when it comes to drug-abuse prevention, treatment and recovery.

And now state legislators and Gov. Christie have a chance to advance that legacy by adopting new laws that would establish an alternative program for high-school students recovering from addictions and require insurers to cover the cost of pills that help deter opioid abuse.

Other bills pending as the current legislative session winds down would create a statewide system to notify the public when there are inpatient drug-treatment beds available and require homes for people in recovery to notify their next-of-kin when a person is released.

These bills would join a substantial list of laws already signed by Christie, who has made addiction treatment a theme in his presidential campaign. They include laws that extend the Overdose Prevention Act to provide immunity to healthcare professionals who assist overdose victims; require state officials to develop plans to treat inmates for addiction; and give the attorney general the authority to coordinate law-enforcement efforts against opioid abuse.

The wave of legislation was prompted by the state and national increase in heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths.

While there are early indications that overdose deaths may have leveled off after climbing for several years, the problem persists.

And not all of the bills in the 21-bill package introduced in the fall of 2014 have been enacted. Most notably, a bill that would require doctors to talk with patients about the potential dangers of prescription opioids was blocked by a senior legislator with expertise in healthcare issues who expressed concern about lawmakers becoming involved in the practice of medicine.

The bill launching alternative education programs for high-school students recovering from addiction would build on the first such school in the state – the Raymond J. Lesniak Experience Strength and Hope Recovery High School in Union County.

State Sen. Lesniak has championed the programs, which allow students to learn in an environment away from the atmosphere that may have contributed to their addiction.

The bill, S-3240/A-4878, would allow school districts to launch their own recovery high schools, and to take students from other districts in exchange for tuition paid by the sending districts. Students in the program would have to be be diagnosed with a substance-use disorder or dependency.

The Senate passed the bill 36-0, and the Assembly Education Committee also passed it unanimously. That leaves a vote by the full Assembly before it can reach Christie’s desk.

“Recovery is difficult for anyone, but teenagers and adolescents who remain in the same environment and with the same friends have a more difficult time staying clean and sober,” Lesniak said in a statement. “They need peer support, not peer pressure.”

The new opioids help deter abuse – some because they are more difficult to crush to be injected or snorted, others because they contain other drugs that help block the addictive effects or are absorbed more slowly into the body.

The insurance industry opposes the bill pertaining to payments for so-called abuse-deterrent opioids.

Sarah Adelman, vice president of the New Jersey Association of Health Plans, said there are questions about the effectiveness of the new drugs. She also noted an estimate by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that the bill could cost the state and local governments $11.8 million next year to cover their workers for the more expensive drugs.

The bill, S-3036/A-4271, was sponsored by Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), among others. The Assembly passed it 60-13 in June, and the Senate Commerce Committee released it last month.

The bill creating a state database to notify the public when residential drug-treatment beds become available received bipartisan support in the Assembly, which passed it 72-0 in May. The measure, A-3955/S-2644, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee tomorrow.

And the bill requiring homes for people in recovery to notify their next-of-kin when they’re released is also advancing. The bill, S-2499/A-3228, was prompted by the death of Nick Rohdes, who was evicted from such a home, known as a sober-living facility, then died from an overdose without his family becoming aware that he had left the facility.

Sober-living facility owners object strongly to the legislation, saying that it would subject them to an unprecedented level of state oversight. They also said that it’s not appropriate, since they don’t provide drug-addiction treatment.

“This bill is intended to provide notification to family members and next-of-kin when an individual is released from these facilities to prevent tragedies and ensure a supportive environment when an addict most needs it,” bill sponsor Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer) said in a statement.

The Assembly passed the bill 62-0, leaving only a vote by the full Senate before final passage.

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