At at little after 2 pm yesterday afternoon, Gov. Chris Christie gave his seventh and final state of the state address. After a brief review of other policies, the Governor used most of his time to address drug addiction. He appeared on the front page of papers around the state today, and received a lot of fawning coverage. Jeremy Rosen, a member of his staff, sent out an email to members of the state and national media this morning about all the positive press and highlighted Mr. Christie’s appearance on Fox and Friends this morning.
Ken Serrano of the Asbury Park Press called me immediately after the speech and asked for my opinion. His write-up can be read here. Michael Hill of NJTV news interviewed me in my home this afternoon (click here to see it). With my media appearances concluded, I wanted to write out a blow-by-blow response to Mr. Christie’s speech.
1) Mr. Christie stated that drug addiction affects kids, schools, health care, law enforcement, jobs and even your family. Agreed.
2) He said we can’t “arrest, jail, or pray” ourselves out of this problem. Agreed.
3) The Governor talked about the prison program that will open in the spring. He talked about it at last year’s address. I have heard from people setting it up that the plans are moving smoothly. I hope high hopes for this and expect that this will be his greatest legacy.
4) Mr. Christie railed against legalized marijuana and mentioned that if you legalize it, more people will use. He said that one of the biggest predictors of someone becoming an addict was starting to use substances at a young age. I am against legalized marijuana. Mr. Christie’s point about age of first use is correct. But while the Governor wants to continue criminalizing marijuana and locking people up for using it, I want to see it decriminalized.
5) He said that insurance companies must pay for up to six month of inpatient treatment and eliminate pre-authorizations and early medical reviews. New York passed a similar bill last summer. Senator Vitale recently introduced a bill covering these very issues but it only required up to three months of inpatient treatment. Gov. Christie took it further. This was the highlight of his speech. If this happens, I will stand up and clap for him and praise him on this achievement.
Taking Credit For Work Others Already Did
6) Mr. Christie announced a one-stop website and phone number for people to call to get information and find treatment. The number is 1-844-REACH-NJ. NJ already has a one-stop phone number. The NJ Addiction Services Hotline is 1-844-276-2777 and began to take calls on July 1, 2015. It has 22 full time staff members and is run by Rutgers Behavioral Health Care. Over 85% of the phone calls they have received are from people with no insurance or on medicaid. This new number is a redundancy – a true waste of tax payers’ money. When I called it today, the automated menu put me on hold. After a long wait, I told the person on the phone that I had a friend with no insurance. They referred me to the NJ Addictions Services Hotline.
7) The Governor said that 18 and 19 year olds would be considered youth when it came to mental health and addiction treatment, allowing them to get more funding and better services. Commissioner Alison Blake has been advocating and working on this plan for the last three years. It is a good idea that should have been implemented years ago. More lives could have been saved.
8) Mr. Christie said that we needed a new curriculum on opioids and other drugs for kids of all ages – different programs for kindergartners, middle school kids, and high school students. Great idea, but it was suggested years ago. The NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force suggested this back in 2012 and included it in its paper in 2014. Last fall, Senator Joe Vitale introduced legislation covering this very thing.
9) He talked about all the saves from Narcan and how law enforcement officers around the state are administering it. This is wonderful. Governor Christie delayed the wide scale use of Narcan back in 2012. When the bill allowing for it finally passed in 2013, he did not provide funding for police departments. Grass roots activists like Patty DiRenzo and Paul Ressler pushed this issue to the forefront of municipalities and police departments and helped raise public money to train civilians and first responders on it. More lives would have been saved had Christie not delayed the release and engaged in a massive push of funding for police officers from the beginning.
10) The Governor talked about counselors helping those that have overdosed. They are not counselors, but rather Recovery Specialists. They have a little training and a small scope of practice – they meet with individuals who have overdosed and through sharing their personal stories and reducing stigma, have better outcomes at getting addicts to go to treatment. This program was created by the Ocean County Prosecutor several years ago.
11) Mr. Christie talked about the role of recovery dorms on college campuses. He said he would increase the funding for these vital programs fourfold. Senator Vitale sponsored a law that passed in the fall of 2015. It mandated that all colleges with over 5000 students living on campus must have recovery housing in the next four years. Christie signed the bill into law but did not provide funding for it. A fourfold increase does not even support the current existing programs, much less help the other schools establish this new required housing. Usually Mr. Christie likes to talk about specific numbers, but he didn’t do so in this case because the numbers are so small.
12) People without a deep knowledge of this issue were impressed by the time he gave to addiction and praised him for being out in front on this issue. Gov. Pete Shumlin of Vermont devoted his entire 2014 state of the state address to addiction and then followed through on his plans. Advocates around NJ had been begging Christie to do the same thing. It would have been more effective had he done it a couple of years into his reign when he had a 54% approval rating. He has done it much too late – his number hover around 12% and he has only a year left in office.
13) He instructed the Attorney General to issue a special rule that limits initial opiate prescriptions to 5 days. NY and Massachusetts have laws with a seven day limit on the books. We have tried to get this passed in NJ, but Democrat Herb Conway kept killing it in the Assembly Health Committee. If this actually happens in NJ, it’s great news. We asked for it ages ago. Until this happens though, I am skeptical. Big Pharma donates a lot of money to NJ politicians.
14) The Governor said that we need more sober living and recovery houses, and that he would push to deregulate them. Sober living and recovery houses are not regulated in NJ. This is a huge problem. I have fought to have these houses regulated. They need to have (a) 24/7 staffing; (b) urine tests two times a week; (c) a curfew; and (d) reasonable access to 12-step meetings and treatment. There are no requirements like this right now. There have been a number of deaths in NJ sober living houses because of a lack of oversight. The lack of regulation of sober living is such a problem that Florida has created a Task Force to shut down programs. There is nothing to deregulate in NJ. This is particularly upsetting because it is well known and has been well reported that Mr. Christie has rich friends who have made a lot of money from running half way houses for people coming out of the criminal justice system. And they have run them very poorly. I am afraid that Mr. Christie is looking to give his friends another financial windfall at the expense of the suffering.
15) Mr. Christie spoke movingly about AJ Solomon, a young man who worked in his office and had a drug problem. While I am happy for Mr. Solomon that he has found recovery, I am deeply concerned that he is opening a private treatment program next month in Camden. He is 26 years old and less than three years sober. These are the exact kind of experiences and qualifications that individuals often have when they open up the kind of for-profit facilities with problems that I mentioned in point 14. Being in recovery does not mean one has an understanding of treatment or recovery support services.
16) Needle exchange programs reduce the rate of new Hep C and HIV infections. This saves lives and money. NJ has only a few small exchanges that have survived on private funding. Gov. Christie approved $200,000 for those programs last summer. But they need to be both continually funded and expanded.
17) The Governor said he would crack down on doctors who profit off of pills and the industry that supplies them. He did not say how he would do it. He did not say he would take away medical licenses, push for fines or throw doctors or pharmaceutical executives in prison.
18) He still has not mandated the NJ Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
19) Mr. Christie did not talk about the NJ Recovery High School. Nor has he helped raise funds for it, nor provided for it in his budget. The school has been supported by Senator Ray Lesniak, a Democrat of out of Union who has had a long-term antagonistic relationship with the Governor. That is probably why Mr. Christie has neither visited it nor supported it. He has let petty politics get in the way of helping addicted children.
Many of Mr. Christie’s announced policy plans are positive. But most of them have come much later than they should have – the number of overdose deaths have increased significantly under his watch, and he was advised on these issues years ago. I am concerned about whether or not these laws will be passed or if the programs will be funded (and if they are funded, will it be a one-off or will they be continually provided for). The timing is problematic. The Governor is deeply unpopular. He has no political capital and the treasury is not only bare, but horrifically in debt. Mr. Christie has a year left in office. He was quick to tout the reception of his speech on go on Fox to talk about it. It seems that he has once again fallen back on this public health issue to address his dreadful poll numbers and try to engage in a comeback. Despite my distrust of the man and his history of disappointing me, I hope that some of these policies and programs will come to fruition. But I fear that we will all be fooled again.
“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” – The Who, 1971.