Opioid Deaths Down in NJ, Governor Details New or Upgraded Anti-Addiction Efforts

Lilo H. Stainton | January 9, 2020 | Health Care
Murphy and officials pledge expanded access to treatment in 2020 and free supplies of overdose antidote for police departments and libraries, among other initiatives
Credit: NJTV News
Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday highlighted some of his administration’s anti-opioid plans for 2020.

Providing local police and libraries with the opioid overdose reversal agent naloxone. A fresh outreach campaign, tied to a more effective treatment hotline. Another attempt to tax opiate manufacturers to help offset New Jersey’s costs in battling addiction.

These are among the concepts New Jersey officials have in place — or in mind — for 2020 as they continue to address the state’s opioid epidemic, according to Gov. Phil Murphy and members of his Cabinet who participated in a public meeting on addiction Wednesday.

While last year saw a 3% decline in the number of drug-related deaths in the state — the first decrease in nearly a decade — some 3,021 people still lost their life to illegal substances.

“There’s no celebration, let me say that upfront,” Murphy told administration officials, treatment providers, law enforcement and individuals in recovery who joined him at the Family Guidance Center, a nonprofit in Warren County that provides substance abuse and mental health services. “Each one of (these victims was) a blessed human being, each of them gone, each representing families around the state who will grieve their loss forevermore.”

Judith Persichilli, acting commissioner of the state Department of Health, added: “We need everyone to be cognizant that this is affecting families every day, with eight overdose deaths every day in New Jersey.”

Planning for $100M in upcoming budget

The governor and his team reviewed their efforts in 2019 and highlighted some of their plans for the year to come; Murphy noted he has included $100 million in each of the past two state budgets to address opioid addiction and would likely do so again next month when he introduces his spending plan for fiscal year 2021, which starts in July.

Murphy said ongoing and new programs will continue to build on four existing areas of focus: improving data collection, expanding access to effective treatment, investing in social programs to address the underlying causes of addiction, and continuing to diversify the work of law enforcement, which is no longer just about making arrests.

“We’re taking that public health approach to this crisis. We’re focusing on prevention. We’re focusing on treatment. And we’re focusing on enforcement as well,” state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.

Among the initiatives on the administration’s agenda is a plan to distribute free naloxone, or Narcan, to municipal police departments and libraries, which — as public spaces — are now the site of overdoses and play an important role in New Jersey’s efforts to address addiction, officials note. Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said she and Grewal sent letters with this offer to police officials on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning 80 departments had contacted her to express interest.

In February, DHS plans to launch new public outreach for the state’s Reach NJ hotline, which has counselors available 24/7 to connect individuals with treatment. Officials said the $4 million campaign will include billboards, internet and cable commercials with messages developed through input from people in recovery and family members. One version includes a quote from the mother of an addict: “I hug him twice, in case it’s the last time.”

Renewed outreach

DHS had previously overhauled the Reach NJ system to make it more effective for callers seeking help. “What we found when we inherited the line was that people were having to go through multiple layers to get to actual help,” Johnson said, “so we redesigned the system so people can connect to a live counselor.”

The outreach campaign and other elements of the Murphy administration opioid response contrast with measures introduced under former Gov. Chris Christie, who focused significant attention on addiction and created the Reach NJ hotline. But Christie faced criticism for launching a costly advertising campaign that featured him prominently in promoting the hotline on TV.

Murphy also said that he has not abandoned an idea he first announced as part of his budget proposal last year, for the state to impose a per-pill tax on companies that manufacture or distribute opioids; the purpose would be to raise funds to offset the taxpayer tab for addiction and recovery services. That plan — which would have cost some companies as much as $5 million a year — was designed to raise $21.5 million annually but failed to attract legislative sponsors in either the Assembly or Senate.

“I want to go to the board rooms’ (of opioid makers) financially to ask for a per-pill charge that we would then take and help us defray some of the $100 million we spend in this arena,” Murphy said Wednesday.

By the numbers

The administration also released a wealth of opioid-related data from 2019, including:

  • 97: the number of fewer drug-related deaths recorded in 2019, versus 2018;
  • 6%: the percentage decline in opioid prescriptions in 2019; prescription numbers have fallen by double digits over the last few years thanks to changes in state law and federal guidelines, and growing awareness among doctors and patients of the potential dangers;
  • 33,200: the number of free naloxone doses DHS distributed to the public during a one-day, statewide effort in June, and to homeless shelters later in the summer;
  • 75: the number of emergency responders trained to date through the DOH’s 5 Minutes to Help initiative, designed to help them communicate with individuals who are experiencing an overdose and, hopefully, connect them with treatment;
  • 30%: the percentage increase in Garden State pharmacies that offer naloxone to the public without a prescription;
  • 11: the number of “heroin mills” destroyed in 2019 by State Police; four of these facilities were connected with 358 overdoses, 133 of which were fatal;
  • 80%: the percentage of heroin that included fentanyl, a more lethal synthetic opioid, based on samples submitted for testing by law enforcement;
  • 700: the number of nonviolent offenders charged with minor drug crimes and diverted into treatment or recovery programs, instead of jail, through the attorney general’s Operation Helping Hand initiative;
  • 26: the number of doctors, pharmacists or other professionals who faced the loss of their license in 2019 because of prescribing violations involving opioids;
  • 16,000; the number of student athletes and parents who watched a video the attorney general’s office created to help them understand the addiction potential of prescription opioids;
  • $7.8 million: grant funding made available in October to help county jails create or expand effective treatment programs; 20 of the 21 counties have accepted funds;
  • 2,516: the number of prisoners in state custody who are on medicated assisted treatment, considered the gold standard in addressing opioid addiction;
  • 953: the number of prisoners who have agreed to serve as peer navigators to help other addicts negotiate treatment and recovery behind bars; nearly half have been trained by experts at Rutgers University.