Gov. Chris Christie used his annual State of the State address Tuesday to deliver a highly personal and emotional plea for greater focus on the “crisis of drug addiction” that he said is “destroying families” and “ripping the very fabric” of New Jersey.
While the two-term Republican governor also highlighted several recent efforts to add jobs, cut taxes, and otherwise grow the economy, roughly two-thirds of his nearly 75-minute speech was devoted to the addiction epidemic, how his administration has worked to reduce its toll, and efforts it will take in the coming year to expand treatment options and help former drug users stay clean.
Christie included personal accounts about a state worker whose son died of a drug overdose two days before Christmas; a former staffer from a prominent political family who struggled with heroin addiction while working for the governor; and a college buddy who lost his life to pills and alcohol, prompting sighs and head shakes from the audience of lawmakers, public and the press.
The governor pledged to work with state legislators in the coming month to mandate insurance plans to cover the first six months of drug treatment for any member, without pre-approvals or other delays. Regulatory changes would be used to drastically limit the supply of opioid-based medications prescribers could dispense and to improve sober-living options; other revisions — and $12 million in new funding — would allow for the state to open more treatment beds. A new school curriculum on addiction would help children understand the dangers, starting in kindergarten.
Drug overdose deaths have risen by double digits in New Jersey during recent years, Christie said, and 1,600 residents lost their lives to drugs in 2015 — three times the number that died in car accidents and four times as many as were murdered. “Our friends are dying. Our neighbors are dying. Our co-workers are dying. Our children are dying. Every day. In numbers we can no longer ignore,” Christie said, prompting applause.
While the format of the speech was somewhat unusual by New Jersey standards, it echoed a 2014 address by Vermont’s Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, who devoted his entire message to what he called a “full-blown crisis” in that state. But Christie, whose term expires next January, has made addiction issues a priority for years and has shifted state resources to help address the growing problem. He has also stressed that drug use is not a moral failing, but a clinical disease, and that punishing the user won’t end the epidemic.
Christie’s speech was largely praised by advocates in the addiction community and lawmakers from both parties. “Governor Christie’s diverse strategies are inspiring and exactly what is needed to address these complicated issues that are leading to tragedy in thousands of lives throughout our state and nation,” said Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. “We greatly appreciate Governor Christie’s focus on the opioid and heroin crisis. In order to most effectively combat this crisis, mental illnesses must also be treated,” she said.
But Democratic leaders said that, while drug addiction is a critical issue, it is not the only crisis facing New Jersey. While they said they welcomed a chance to work with the governor to curb this epidemic — and noted that many of his current efforts have received strong support in the Legislature — they also urged Christie to join them in a fight to make sure the federal Affordable Care Act, which extended coverage to nearly 700,000 Garden State residents, isn’t repealed by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. (Christie noted that this expanded coverage paid for more than 14,000 Medicaid recipients to receive drug treatment during 2016, a five-fold increase over 2013, before the law took full effect.)
Assemblyman Jerry Green, (D-Union), also urged the governor not to ignore drug control policies that could reduce the supply of addictive substances. The governor did announce the creation of a new task force, to be chaired by his former chief counsel and current Schools Development Authority CEO Charles McKenna, that would coordinate state agencies to address drug trafficking, the diversion of prescription drugs for illicit use, and other related law enforcement challenges, as well as treatment issues.
“Drug treatment is something we can all rally around,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, (D-Hudson). “But there’s still many challenges facing the State of New Jersey going forward.”
During Tuesday’s speech, Christie underscored anti-addiction efforts he first outlined in his 2016 State of the State that now are well underway — and doubled down on several of these programs. His inclusion of $127 million in additional funding in the current state budget has enabled the state to boost reimbursement rates for some services under Medicaid; while some providers have said these payments are too low, the governor pledged to continue this funding boost in the next fiscal budget, to be adopted by July.
Christie praised the work of the state’s recovery coaches, former addicts who are trained to help drug users who overdose, a program he showcased in last year’s speech. This effort is now underway in 11 of the state’s 21 counties and the governor said he will continue to invest in this work in the year to come.
The state is also close to completing work on the drug-treatment prison he outlined in his 2016 address, Christie said. The former Mid-State Correctional Facility, in Burlington County, was closed several years ago, but will reopen in the coming months as a 696-bed prison designed to treat inmates through a range of evidence-based programs. The facility will be open to medium-security inmates accused of any crime, drug-related or not. While some treatment services are currently available through the state’s prison system (including for the most violent offenders, held in Trenton’s maximum security site), far more options are needed to address the high level of drug addiction in the prison population, officials said.
The governor, who has championed so-called “drug courts” as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, and other criminal justice reforms, said these efforts will also continue. In fact, he noted he will work with Koch Industries, run by GOP mega-donors, to help companies be more open to hiring former inmates.
Looking forward, the governor announced a new website and hotline service to help connect drug users with help, which went live Tuesday afternoon. The service — available at 1-844- REACH-NJ or go to REACHNJ.GOV — will include information on treatment options, insurance guidance, and support services, both private and nonprofit.
One of the bolder proposals involved Christie’s call for a mandate requiring insurance companies to pay for the first six months of drug treatment, both inpatient and outpatient, without any delays. Democratic leaders said they would work with the governor to improve coverage, although insurance experts warned the issue is not as clear-cut as the governor suggested.
“No more pre-approvals. No more medical necessity reviews prior to admission by an insurance company bureaucrat. No more denials that can cost lives. Treatment first. Hope first. Let’s end the insurance company run-around,” Christie said. (Under current regulations, pre-approval is now required for a number of in-patient treatments — not only drug rehab — but not for outpatient addiction programs.)
Ironically, the issue of healthcare mandates became political fodder during Christie’s first gubernatorial run, in 2009, when he blamed then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, for saddling New Jersey’s insurance industry with too many costly requirements. Reports at the time noted New Jersey then had 45 health insurance mandates — requiring coverage for things like Pap tests, prostate screening and autism testing — that added 5 percent to the cost of care.
The governor directed the Department of Children and Families to revise regulations to allow youth treatment facilities it operates to accept 18- and 19-year-olds, who are currently excluded from these sites, even if there are open beds available. Christie predicted this alone would open up another 200 spots to these older teens now waiting for a chance at recovery; he pledged another $12 million to further expand treatment beds for what he called a “very vulnerable population,” adding, “the wait may be more than they can bear.”
Christie also ordered the Department of Education to start drafting a new, age-specific curriculum to help youngsters avoid addiction. The message “will be simple and direct,” starting in kindergarten with a warning about drugs in the home medicine cabinet, he said. In addition, he pledged to provide $5 million to expand a pilot program that connects pediatricians with psychiatrists, who are often out of reach to children in need. While Christie provided more than $2 million to get this program started two years ago, he declined to fund any expansion in the current budget.
The governor also called on the Attorney General to use emergency rulemaking to require that all providers issue only a five-day supply of opiates to patients at the onset of their treatment. Doctors routinely write a 30-day prescription, even for minor cases. “This is dangerous, ill-advised and absolutely unnecessary,” Christie said, noting that addiction can take hold quickly.
But getting clean is only the first step, the governor noted. He promised to invest $1 million more for sober-living facilities on college campuses, a move praised by Rutgers University, which was the first school in the nation to offer recovery housing, in 1988. Christie also said he would ease regulations to encourage the creation of more community-based recovery homes, noting he was working with Sen. Joseph Vitale, (D-Middlesex), a longtime addiction-services advocate who heads the Senate health committee, to encourage more sober-living sites to be developed statewide.
“All of these programs and initiatives save lives. I will continue to expand upon education, prevention, treatment and recovery efforts in New Jersey to fight the disease of addiction. I’m looking forward to work in partnership with the governor as we have for the past three years,” Vitale said, noting that several of Christie’s proposals are already enshrined in law, but now need to be implemented.
The sober-housing work in particular is informed by Christie’s conversations with A.J. Solomon, a former staffer and the son of BPU Commissioner Dianne Solomon and state Supreme Court Associate Justice Lee Solomon. The young man is a recovering addict who once purchased heroin in the Camden area before coming to work as a member of Christie’s advance team, the governor said, but he is now sober and about to open a treatment center in Laurel Springs.
“We love you, A.J.,” Christie said, prompting one of several standing ovations, “and I’m thrilled about how you have chosen to spend the rest of your life — your long and productive life.”