Former Gov. Chris Christie may have solidified his legacy through efforts to expand treatment and reduce the stigma of drug addiction, but his image is unlikely to remain a part of New Jersey’s nearly $43 million public outreach campaign to address the opioid epidemic.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, sworn in to replace the outgoing Republican on Tuesday, has indicated his staff will review the controversial public relations effort and likely try to suspend the network TV commercials in which Christie appears alongside individuals in recovery, according to several people briefed on their plans.
The outreach campaign is part of a $200 million initiative Christie launched last fall to expand treatment options and support services, funded with lapsed or unspent dollars transferred from other programs, without input from the state Legislature. His staff insisted the ads would end when the former governor left office, but the state signed a $17.5 million year-long contract for outreach in November. (Some versions of the commercial do not include Christie.)
Diverted funds from education accounts
While the former governor had declined to identify where these monies originated, Democratic leaders said Tuesday that a nonpartisan review of the transfers shows that $39.4 million came from school construction and other education-related accounts, including programs designed to expand preschool and provide grants for college students.
“There are 101 ways free ways to reach out” to the public about the dangers of drug addiction and options for recovery, noted longtime Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who asked the Office of Legislative Services to review the expenditures, including Facebook and other social media posts and free Public Service Announcements on broadcast media.
“We don’t have money lying around in preschool and TAG (Tuition Aid Grants),” Weinberg noted, stressing that leftover funds could have been reinvested in these initiatives. “This was done at the expense of programs that are equally important,” she said.
The content of the ads also makes the investment questionable, Weinberg added. “To have featured the (former) governor, which makes these unusable as of noon (Tuesday), also makes it a poor decision,” she said.
Christie’s role in the TV commercials is also a concern for the new administration. The former governor ended his second four-year term with record low popularity, according to public polling, and sources said that makes him a poor messenger, regardless of the issue.
“It’s time to hit the reset button,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chairman who has led efforts to address the epidemic over the years.
“It seems to me an enormous waste of resources if you can’t quantify how many people received opportunities for care, or how they have actually been helped,” he said. The nearly $43 million spent on outreach “can go a long way to help people, but I don’t believe it was spent in a manner that was entirely appropriate or smart,” Vitale noted.
Details released by Christie’s staff last week suggest that 18,600 people called the ReachNJ hotline (1-844-REACH-NJ) between January 2017 and December 2017, and millions were reached through the online ads and social media posts. In fact, when the ads ran, calls to other, unrelated hotlines also spiked, according to those involved.
In his final year in office, Christie prioritized efforts to address addiction and reduce the stigma surrounding drug use disorders; tens of thousands of New Jerseyans seek treatment every year for the disease and, in 2016, some 2,100 died as a result.
The former governor led a White House task force to address the epidemic on a national scope, instituted the country’s strictest limits on opioid prescriptions, significantly expanded the use of naloxone, or Narcan, which can reverse an overdose, and moved to add far more treatment facilities and sober housing.
Even Murphy, who became New Jersey’s 56th governor on Tuesday, applauded Christie’s work on these issues: “To Governor Christie, on behalf of our state, I thank you for your over two decades of public service to New Jersey. There is much in your body of work from which to choose, but, in particular, your work to save lives from the epidemic of opioid addiction is a legacy worth applauding and continuing, and I intend to do so,” Murphy said during his inauguration speech.
But while the former governor has received widespread praise for this focus, some have come to question the methods he used to fund elements of the responses. (Before tapping the lapsed dollars, Christie spent months trying to extract at least $200 million from the reserve fund managed by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, a not-for-profit organization that is the state’s largest insurance provider.)
Despite repeated requests, Christie’s team declined to provide real detail on what accounts were tapped for lapsed funding. His communications team did not return a request for comment late Tuesday.
According to the OLS analysis, provided by Weinberg, monies for the publicity campaign — conducted largely by Kivvit, a firm led by powerful New Jersey Democrat Maggie Moran — came from several education-related accounts that had leftover balances in recent years.
Kivvit, which offered below-market rates on the advertising buy, is due to take in more than $40 million through three contracts it signed with the state in 2017, according to state documents secured by Politico, which has been tracking the expenditure.
The transfers included:
“To have taken out so much of this money, particularly from preschool and TAG, is a concern,” Weinberg said. She said she would encourage the Murphy administration to instead focus on lower-cost ways to spread the anti-addiction message and to ensure any ads they do produce can be used for years to come.