Upholding his promise to combat heroin addiction in New Jersey during his remaining days in office, Gov. Chris Christie in October declared an opioid health crisis, signing an executive order that grants him additional resources to battle the epidemic.
“There’s going to be lots of different pieces to try and solve this problem,” Christie said at Integrity House, a substance abuse center where he met with former and recovering drug addicts after signing the order. “No one around this table is to be forgotten.”
Nearly 1,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2015 — two times the national rate and a 22 percent increase from the year prior. NJ Advance Media estimates at least 128,000 in the state are addicted to heroin.
“It’s a disease; we’re doing this because it could be anybody,” Christie said, as those battling addiction shared their stories of loss, perseverance and pain.
“You have saved my life,” former heroin addict Vanessa V. told Christie as tears welled up in her eyes. “I want you to know that.” Vanessa, 31, graduated from Integrity House’s drug-treatment program last summer, and said she became addicted to heroin after taking opioid-based pain medications for her illnesses.
For privacy reasons, former and current clients of the Integrity House declined to give their last names.
The executive order creates a task force on drug abuse control that will come up with ways to fight drug addiction — whether by changing regulations, amending statutes or recommending new laws.
The panel will consist of eight members. Charlie McKenna, executive director of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, which oversees school construction, will head the task force.
The order also:
- Directs the state Attorney General to limit initial prescription of opioids and set guidelines so any additional prescriptions require further medical consultation.
- Ensures 18- and 19-year-olds with substance abuse problems can fill any vacancies in existing treatment facilities.
- Directs the state Commissioner of Education to develop a new curriculum for each grade that will teach students about the dangers of substance abuse.
- With 366 days left as governor, Christie said he plans to change zoning requirements so towns “can’t say ‘no thanks’” to new sober homes.
- Working with President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration, Christie wants to eliminate barriers that prevent using Medicaid funds for those receiving inpatient substance abuse treatment in a facility with more than 16 beds.
Christie again reiterated key proposals in his crusade against opioid addiction that he outlined during his state of the state address, among them is working with lawmakers to mandate insurance coverage for the first six months of in-patient or outpatient drug rehabilitation treatment.
“Let’s let the professionals make those judgements” about treatment time, Christie said.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said he will continue to assemble his own task force on the opioid health crisis, which he said he announced about two weeks ago.
Vitale said his task force will bring “the best policies informed by scientific evidence” and include experts in pain management, opioid and heroin addiction and recovery.
“What is being overlooked is the value of medicine-assisted treatment and how we manage pain,” Vitale said. He also wanted to delve into the pharmaceutical industry’s “practice of selling these drugs and advocating for their use, which has not changed,” despite the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic.
Carlos P., who has been clean for three months, said it was humbling for Christie to sit down and speak with recovering addicts. And, despite his political differences with Christie, “I support that he has New Jersey citizens’ best interest at heart,” Carlos, 26, said.