With less than 24 hours left in office, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation to further integrate behavioral and physical healthcare, create more checks on physicians prescribing addictive medicines, and ensure that overdose victims get information about treatment options.
The Republican governor approved a handful of addiction-related measures, several led by Democrats, to close various policy gaps in an issue that has become somewhat of a legacy for Christie during the last leg of his second four-year term.
The bills were among more than 100 that Christie signed into law on Monday, while state offices were closed to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is scheduled to be sworn into office today to replace Christie.
Christie has invested heavily in addressing addiction in recent months, reallocating some $200 million in unused or “lapsed” funds to expand treatment capacity and support services; this has included some $42.6 million for an advertising campaign designed to underscore the dangers of addiction and connect people with help through the ReachNJ program.
While Christie has defended this outreach, which his office said has led to a spike in treatment interest, the ads have been criticized by some, who suggest the real goal was to improve the governor’s legacy. Tens of thousands of Garden State residents have sought treatment in recent years; some 2,100 died of addiction-related issues in 2016.
“Combating opioid addiction has been an important initiative of my Administration,” Christie wrote in a statement that accompanied legislation (S-294) that requires emergency personnel or healthcare organizations to provide those who overdose with details about Reach NJ and other sources of help. “These individuals must be informed of the resources available to them to help fight their addiction and combat the epidemic facing this nation.”
The governor also approved legislation that would require the state Department of Health to create a single, unified licensing process for facilities that want to offer both behavioral and physical care, the latest step in an ongoing effort to further integrate mental health and substance abuse treatments with traditional medical services.
“Removing the stigma of mental health and substance use disorder treatment has been a core initiative of my Administration, as has been streamlining bureaucracy and removing red tape,” Christie wrote in a statement with this bill (S-1710).
Last summer, Christie ordered oversight of behavioral care be moved to the DOH, which also regulates physical care; in the past, mental health and substance use programs were monitored by the state’s Department of Human Services.
In his statement, the governor said the shift — which sparked concern at first — “laid the foundation” for a single licensing system, making it easier for providers to expand the scope of care they can provide, and thus increasing needed services. The reorganization plan and the bill together allow the DOH to “be the single nexus for healthcare, unifying physical mental and behavioral health in New Jersey,” he wrote.
Sen. Robert Singer (R-Monmouth), a lead sponsor of the licensing bill along with Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chair, said the licensing reform will also improve the quality of care for vulnerable residents most in need. Studies have shown the majority of those suffering from mental illness do not receive affordable, effective treatment.
“Forcing facilities to obtain multiple licenses just so they can provide a full spectrum of health services is an unnecessary restriction that only serves in blocking patients from accessing the care they need,” Singer said. “This is a commonsense measure that will ensure families across the state have access to the services they need to heal and thrive.”
In addition, Christie agreed to change the state’s Overdose Prevention Act to allow emergency responders and others to administer up to three doses of certain forms of naloxone, or Narcan, a powerful opioid-reversal agent. The change is in response to the emergence of stronger forms of heroin and drugs mixed with a potentially deadly synthetic opioid, Fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is so potent, it may require several doses of naloxone to bring someone out of a fentanyl overdose,” said Assemblyman Colin Bell (D-Atlantic), who replaced the late Sen. Jim Whelan, the original champion of the bipartisan proposal (A-4467).
“First responders who encounter overdose victims should only need to worry about saving lives and not about potential liability,” Bell added. “Senator Whelan wanted to provide first responders with the necessary resources to save lives, and that is what this law does.”
Christie also approved a measure (S-3604) that expands the use of pain contracts — agreements that prescribers use to help patients avoid addiction, enhances continuing education requirements for providers, and adds new requirements for checking the state’s prescription monitoring program, a database doctors can use to monitor patients’ drug use. The governor has beefed up the PMP in recent years and the system is now linked to databases in more than a dozen states, including Pennsylvania and New York.