Acknowledging state leaders and staff on the front lines of New Jersey’s war on drug addiction, Gov. Chris Christie released a new series of advertisements promoting recovery services that — this time — feature individuals who have benefitted directly from the programs.
TV ads featuring Vanessa Vitolo, a 30-year-old former heroin addict who recently joined Christie for a “listening session” with President Donald Trump, began running late last week on networks throughout the region. Vitolo, who met the governor at a candlelight vigil he hosted at the State House in December, recounts a common story: prescription painkillers for an injury left her addicted and she quickly turned to heroin to feed her cravings before getting help.
“By the time the (prescription) drugs ran out, I was addicted. It happened so fast,” Vitolo states in the ad. “I ended up on the streets where the drugs were cheaper and easier to get. I was a full-blown heroin addict, selling my soul to get high.”
English and Spanish outreach
Radio ads feature James, a recovery aide and former client at the Rescue Mission of Trenton, where he met Christie, who was once a highly-sought football recruit but ended up hooked on heroin and in jail after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers after an injury. A Spanish-language ad features Jorge, who met the governor through programs at Integrity House. Billboards and digital ads on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites are scheduled to go live any day.
On Thursday, Christie unveiled the new commercials for the 1-844-REACH-NJ hotline (or www.reach.nj.gov, which features an online chat service) at a call center in Whippany. That is where he met with Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett, acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly, Vitolo, and others in recovery, and operators at the state’s 2-1-1 help line — a multipurpose hotline that can assist with issues ranging from housing to human trafficking.
Experts at REACH-NJ also handle calls related to addiction and recovery that come into 2-1-1. The system also is integrated with the hotline operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health System, which was established for Medicaid patients.
“I can also tell you is that the people on these phones are the ones who are really on the front lines. They’re the ones who are giving the information that is needed, they’re the ones who are directing people in the right way. They’re the ones who are you know, putting them on that path to hope,” Christie said, acknowledging that the drug user also has to want to seek help. “But if people don’t know where to go for help when they need it, they can’t even begin that journey.”
REACH-NJ features trained counselors available 24/7 who can connect callers with recovery services throughout the state. They also provide support and other help for family members and can help individuals obtain state-sponsored health insurance, career help and other social services.
The ads, part of a campaign the state initiated in February that could reportedly cost up to $15 million, mark Christie’s latest efforts to connect those with substance use disorders with the help they need to get and stay clean. The first ad for the REACH-NJ hotline — paid from a different fund — launched in late January and primarily featured the governor, prompting questions from some critics who said he was not the most effective messenger to connect with those in need. Since then, the REACH-NJ hotline has fielded some 4,500 calls.
Public outreach only part of plan
The public outreach is just one aspect of Christie’s recent focus on curbing the impact of addiction, which has driven tens of thousands to treatment in recent years and killed some 1,500 state residents in 2015. Nearly nine out of 10 individuals never get the help they need, Christie said on Thursday, and the state’s overdose rate increased 22 percent between 2014 and 2015.
In recent months the governor signed the nation’s toughest ban on opiate prescriptions for acute pain and required insurance companies to cover up to six months of treatment. He has also expanded the use of naloxone, a powerful drug that can quickly reverse opioid overdoses, invested in peer-counseling programs, and sought to expand treatment beds and recovery housing. Last week, Trump named him to head the newly formed President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.