State agencies will be better able to track the opioid epidemic and target efforts to address it; communities will benefit from new emergency response options; and the New Jersey public now has easy access to a wealth of data related to drug use.
Those are among the goals of a new strategy to battle addiction outlined yesterday by New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, the first targeted policy response from the administration of Democrat Phil Murphy to what has become a growing public health crisis in the Garden State.
The effort involves the creation of a public entity, the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator of Addiction Response and Enforcement Strategies – or NJ CARES – within the Department of Law and Public Safety, to oversee the state’s work and serve as a liaison with outside groups and agencies, Grewal said.
In addition, federal funding will be used to create an interagency drug awareness “dashboard,” an online platform that will allow diverse state officials to access updated information about the epidemic – ranging from street crimes to overdoses to prescriber abuse – in order to more precisely target their response, the AG added.
Another federal grant will pay for recovery experts, mental health providers, and other crisis intervention professionals to work with local police and emergency medical technicians in multidisciplinary opioid-response teams that can attend to drug-related incidents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the announcement. Similar teams have been created in other jurisdictions nationwide, including New York City.
An accompanying website, also launched Thursday, provides the public with up to six years of data on opioid prescriptions, overdose deaths, and use of naloxone, an overdose reversal agent that has become a critical tool for emergency responders and recovery specialists. Once fully operational, the site will be updated weekly, officials said.
Some 2,221 residents died of a drug overdose in 2016, a 40 percent increase over the previous year; heroin deaths rose nearly 50 percent that year and ODs from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate, almost doubled, according to the most recent information posted to the site yesterday. A county breakdown shows Essex and Ocean counties have led the state in deaths, with more than 250 ODs each in 2016.
“Simply put, the epidemic is unprecedented in its scope. It is unprecedented in its pace. And it’s unprecedented in its reach,” Grewal said Thursday when announcing the program during an event at Seton Hall University School of Law, in Newark. While daunting, Grewal said he is committed to “overcome this crisis.”
“And while law enforcement efforts are a key part of controlling the access and flow of opioids, those efforts are really fruitless if we don’t focus also on prevention, on treatment as well as enforcement, and on recovery,” Grewal added.
That’s where NJ CARES comes in. The office will be charged with “coordinating efforts across our office and creating partnerships with other entities – public and private – [which] are similarly situated and dedicated to implementing solutions to the opioid crisis and drug addiction,” he said.
The opiate epidemic – specifically the use of heroin, fentanyl, or opioid-based pills like oxycodone – became the focus of former Gov. Chris Christie’s last year in office, and the Republican launched nearly $200 million in new or expanded recovery-related initiatives in October, just three months before he left office. He also signed the nation’s most-restrictive law on opioids in February 2017, limiting initial prescriptions to a five-day dose for acute pain.
Murphy on Christie
Murphy, who called for expanding treatment options during his gubernatorial campaign, praised his Republican predecessor’s commitment to reducing the impact of addiction and called it a legacy “worth applauding and continuing” when he took office in January. But the governor had yet to outline any specifics regarding his own plans to address the crisis.
The healthcare transition team, which issued a 15-page blueprint for healthcare policy, called on Murphy to further expand public education about addiction, work with prescribers to reduce the pool of addictive pills, and improve data sharing and other cooperation among the state agencies involved with the epidemic.
The group also stressed the need to better integrate substance-use treatment with mental health treatment and physical care, particularly primary care – although it urged Murphy to reverse a government restructuring Christie conducted in an effort to improve coordination.
NJ CARES will be led by Sharon M. Joyce, the acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, which runs various healthcare-licensing boards and operates the state’s prescription-monitoring program. “The programs we’re announcing today create partnerships throughout the state that will make us all stronger, better informed, and more capable of defeating the scourge of addiction,” she said.
Among her priorities will be to expand this database to include additional medications, enable some mental health providers to access records, and hire an expert to analyze the data. The system, now linked to databases in more than a dozen other states, allows prescribers and other providers to check a patient’s history with addictive medicines.
NJ CARES will also oversee the interagency drug dashboard, which will include data from the prescription-monitoring program, law enforcement, and treatment facilities in an effort to provide a “holistic picture” of the state’s epidemic, officials said. Analytical tools will be developed to flag worrisome patterns or concentrated outbreaks, allowing state officials to focus their resources where they are needed most. This project is to be funded in part by a $600,000 federal grant.
A separate grant, totaling $850,000, will be used to create the opioid response teams in participating local communities. The program will train police and EMTs, mental health advocates, substance-abuse providers, and former addicts in recovery to work together on drug-related emergency calls to de-escalate tension, communicate effectively with individuals under the influence of powerful drugs, connect them with treatment or recovery services, and preserve evidence for potential prosecutions. Officials said they hope to be working to identify local partners by the end of the summer.