Yearly Archives: 2017


The Last Republican?

John McCain has served in the Senate since 1987. He occupies the seat that used to belong to Barry Goldwater (a conservative who lost in a landslide in the Presidential election in 1964; Senator Goldwater would eventually repudiate a number of his ultra conservative policy stances from earlier in his life). Senator McCain is 81 years old and has been getting treatment for  brain cancer that was publicly announced in the summer of 2017. This piece is an appreciation for his service to the United States in both the Navy and Congress. A recent dual biography on the Bush Presidents is titled The Last Republicans, but that label fits Senator McCain much better (that said, even the latest Star Wars title shows that the “last anything” is probably hyperbole, except in cases like this or this).

John McCain was born in 1936. His father and grandfather were both four-star admirals in the Navy. Mr. McCain graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958 and became an aviator. He was shot down over Hanoi in October of 1967. His ejection from the plane broke both arms and his right leg. Those breaks were not properly set. During his captivity, he was tortured by the North Vietnamese, causing further injuries. Because of his family connections, he was offered an opportunity to be repatriated (swapped for other prisoners) before other Americans that were captured. Mr. McCain always refused such offers. His captors tried to break him, hanging him by his broken arms for hours (you can read about it in Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song). He was finally released in 1973. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and served two terms before successfully running for Senate.

In his masterful book on the 1996 Presidential Primaries and Election, The Losers, Michael Lewis met and fell for John McCain (to be clear, Lewis identifies as a liberal but deeply liked and admired the Senator anyway). The Senator was not running for President, but was serving as a surrogate for Senator Bob Dole. While Mr. McCain was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton, American anti-war protest speeches were broadcast into the prison cells in an effort to break the men. The leader of one of the protests was David Ifshin. In a story that wasn’t known until the Clinton Administration, Mr. Ifshin apologized to Senator McCain in 1986. During the 1992 campaign, Mr. Ifshin served as a legal counsel to Governor Clinton but did not immediately work in the administration. When Senator McCain learned that his Vietnam protests were holding up an appointment, he called an unprompted press conference to help Mr. Ifshin. Here is another telling passage by Mr. Lewis:

I visited him at his home in Phoenix and at his cabin in the Arizona desert. I came to know his wife and children. But — and here was the amazing thing — simply by being weirdly insistent on hanging around I came across all sorts of little habits he had that said something about who the man was. McCain was clearly ambitious as they come; even then you could see he was talking himself into running for president. Yet he had developed a trick to ward off the ill-effects of ambition on his soul: he did many things that were of no possible benefit to his political career. For instance, he made a habit, once a week, at the crack of dawn, of visiting the hospital bed of retired Arizona congressman Mo Udall. Udall, who was dying of Parkinson’s disease, was unaware he had a visitor. When he’d been in power everyone wanted to see him; now no one but McCain came to visit. There was no one to witness McCain’s gesture. The visit was McCain’s way of paying tribute to a man he had admired, and who had guided him early in his career. Since Udall no longer responded to visitors, the visits were of no possible benefit to him. McCain did it for himself: the trips were a tool for reminding himself of the transience of political success. (304)

Senator McCain would run for President in 2000, but he was defeated by Governor Bush in the Republican primary. Senator McCain had upset Governor Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire and had momentum heading into the South Carolina primary. Karl Rove convinced George W. Bush to “take the gloves off” and Mr. Rove engineered a series of false and disgusting attacks that would ultimately help Bush win South Carolina and the nomination. One was that his wife Cindy was a drug addict (she had abused pain killers after a surgery in 1994). Another was that McCain had slept with prostitutes and given his wife STDs. Yet another was that he was turned in the Hanoi Hilton and was now mentally ill. The coup de grace was that he had a Negro child out of wedlock. This played into the racism that strongly existed (and still exists) in South Carolina and was a twisted distortion of a wonderful story: the McCains adopted a Bangladeshi orphan with a cleft palet named Bridget in 1991 after Cindy McCain met her during a relief mission. I am extremely proud that I voted for Senator McCain in the 2000 Republican primary.

Senator McCain championed campaign-finance reform and worked across the aisle with Russ Feingold in 2002. During the next few years, he rebelled less against the Republican establishment and sometimes went against earlier positions. He did this in an effort to shore up his base to run for President in 2008. His running mate was Sarah Palin, an unmitigated disaster that he thrust upon the nation when his advisors discouraged him from naming Senator Lieberman (a conservative Democrat) as his running mate. Senator McCain has never spoken poorly of her in public, but Steve Schmidt, his campaign manager, has voiced both his opinion on Governor Palin and where the GOP has been headed in recent years. In the general election that year, I voted for the other guy. Over the next few years, Mr. McCain would return to his maverick ways.

Fast forward to June of 2015. Donald Trump said this about Senator McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” In previous elections, such a statement about a decorated veteran would have been disqualifying. More so than anything else in 2015, that moment was the one that signaled shift in the Republican party and its voters. Numerous people that claim to support the military have twisted themselves with irrational verbal gymnastics in order to justify Mr. Trump’s anti-veteran statement about Senator McCain.

Just after his cancer diagnosis and treatment, the Republicans attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Senator McCain ripped the Republicans for their terrible legislative process (no hearings, fast votes) and flew back to Washington to cast his vote. You can read about it here, but this video and picture say it all.

This December, there have been a number of moving moments and tributes. Vice President Biden appeared on The View, co-hosted by Meghan McCain. He was discussing his book about his son Beau, who passed away in 2015 from a similar form of brain cancer. Ms. McCain understandably was teary, and Mr. Biden moved over to console her. He said, “One of the things that gave Beau courage, my word, was John. You may remember when you were a little kid, your dad took care of my Beau. And Beau talked about your dad’s courage — not about illness, but about his courage.”

If you pay attention, you’ll see this over and over again in regards to Senator McCain. Political opponents having gracious and moving words to say on his behalf. Regardless of their fields, anyone who can garner such respect out of so many opponents is truly a special individual.

A few days later, Fred Hiatt, the Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post wrote an opinion piece on Senator McCain and his role in U.S. global leadership, something that is very much lacking in the present:

Like many people, I’ve been alternately cheered and disappointed by McCain’s stances on domestic matters over the years — admiring when he helped save Obamacare a few months ago, disappointed when he went along with the Republican tax-cut bill this month. But McCain has never wavered in his support for democracy and human rights, and in his conviction that the United States needs to provide moral support to those who fight for freedom around the world. With President Trump often expressing more admiration for dictators than for democratic leaders, McCain’s advocacy has become lonelier — and more essential.

But he does not disguise how worried he is by the deeper currents that recall to him the darker movements of the 1930s: the nativism, the assaults on freedom of the press and the rule of law, the blaming of foreign competition for all ills, the rise of extremism. “I worry about the polarization that’s going on here, I really do,” McCain said. “The terms of the debate is what is really disappointing. The other day I was flipping the channels, and I saw Bannon just beating the crap out of Romney,” he continued, alluding to Bannon’s attacks on Romney for his service as a Mormon missionary in France during the Vietnam War. McCain, who more than did his part in Vietnam, made clear he didn’t share Bannon’s view. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with serving your church. I had no idea that was a crime.”

Two days before Christmas, Larry Fitzgerald, a potential Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, wrote a piece about Senator McCain for Sports Illustrated. Of the Senator, Mr. Fitzgerald said, “One of the reasons I admire Senator McCain is that he doesn’t always just vote his party. He votes his conscience, and that can seem like a rare quality these days.” The article is decent, though not nearly as good as the other ones I’ve referenced. It is further testimony to yet another impressive relationship that Mr. McCain developed.

I met Senator John McCain on Memorial Day in 2009. My ex-wife and I traveled to Arizona for the week around my 33rd birthday. We hiked the Grand Canyon (almost to the bottom), biked around Sedona, walked around Flagstaff, took in the Meteor Crater, and attended an Arizona Diamondback game in our quest to visit every MLB park (I’ve done them all and April is more than 3/4 through). Before the game started, I noticed Senator McCain sitting alone. No one had seen him. I felt conflicted. I like to give people their privacy (I sat next to Philip Seymour Hoffman at a steakhouse in NYC once and convinced April to leave him alone, despite the fact that Mr. Hoffman uncannily looked like my longest serving college roommate). Even back in 2009, after having just recently voted against him, I wanted to go over and shake Senator McCain’s hand. I went up to him and told him that I voted for him in the 2000 primary and that I appreciated his service in the Navy and his work in the Senate. I told him that I didn’t agree with him on a lot of issues, but that I had no question about his integrity. He was neither warm nor pleasant, but shook my hand and agreed to pose for the photo that begins this article. After our photo, a bunch of other people realized that someone famous was down behind home plate and they began to line up. I mouthed “sorry” to him but he didn’t respond (he is also known for being difficult and cursing a lot). Before the game, he appeared on the field with his wife and children, one of whom (Jack) was currently serving as a Naval Aviator. Mr. McCain stayed for most of the game and shook hands and signed programs for people that approached him. He never shooed them away.



How To Support Your Family Member in Early Recovery During the Holidays

I received several versions of this question in recent weeks:
In the parent portion of group last night, we discussed the upcoming holidays and how we were handling alcohol. I am hosting, XXXX is coming home, and I have decided to not serve alcohol. When I presented that to everyone else at my home last night, other family members’ reactions were not what I had wanted. If you could help me with a quick response,as I’m sure he won’t be the only one as I spread this word. I used the “support XXXX” and other things I have learned. The bottom line is one family member thinks that alcohol wasn’t XXXX’s big vice and therefore it shouldn’t be a “big deal”. Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated in me helping other family members understand. 
While the last five to six weeks of the year are traditionally supposed to be joyful celebrations with family and friends, many people describe the holidays as “stressful” and “to be endured” or “survived.” Over the years, clients have told me that the holiday stress can be related to any or all of the following:
a) unresolved conflicts with family or friends
b) forced to see relatives that you otherwise would not see
c) the self-perception that one has not accomplished enough and the low self-esteem that accompanies that
d) being single (or recently broken up or divorced)
e) not having children
f) being separated from one’s children
g) financial stress
h) legal stress
i) being around alcohol or other substances at holiday gatherings
j) arguments over politics
The data on the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day show increased rates of depression, drunk driving, domestic violence, suicide attempts, and emergency room visits. All of those aforementioned problems can be caused or exacerbated by alcohol and/or other substances. I realize I’ve done my typical professorial reaction, where I provide a lot of background before addressing a simple question. Here it is in numbered points:
1) I define early recovery from alcohol and other drugs as the first two years (very early recovery is the first 90 days).
2) People are more likely to relapse in early recovery than in long term recovery.
3) Those in early recovery are often still unsure of themselves. They may not be good in advocating for themselves or setting boundaries. They may have a desire to appear unaffected or “normal.”
4) If someone had a problem with heroin or opioids (or cocaine or meth), they should avoid all other substances as well. I have known hundreds (it’s probably thousands, actually) of people who quit those harder drugs but then thought they could use alcohol or marijuana. Almost all of them found out that they could not. Some of them eventually abused those substances, while many others returned to their preferred heavier substances.
5) People in early recovery are often asked some variation of “Does that mean you can’t drink a glass or wine or have some champagne at New Year’s?” or “Does it bother you if I’m drinking?” Some of them are not equipped to answer those questions well, and they are particularly vulnerable to those questions when asked in front of a group of people.
6) If you want to be supportive, have alcohol (and other drug) free events during the first two years of your family member or friend’s recovery. They might tell you it’s fine and that they don’t want to take away from other’s holiday enjoyment. In the first two years, just go substance free. Don’t make it a vote or debate – just do it. If other family member’s or friends take issue with it, invite them to attend a family group education session or AA meeting or Al-Anon meeting or read this article. Those that are really difficult about it may potentially have a substance problem themselves. Having substance free holidays in early recovery is a wonderful gesture of support.
7) I encourage people in early recovery to avoid events where there is substance use. In long-term recovery, some people choose to continue to avoid situations with substances while others feel comfortable at sporting events, concerts, dances, work dinners, and parties. Everyone is different. I don’t mind when people around me drink, but I very much dislike being around most drunk people. I find that they are more likely to be rude, loud, rowdy, inarticulate, not funny and potentially chaotic. I avoid certain family members and events. I throw substance free functions and no one that means anything to me seems to mind. Decades ago, I was greatly touched by those that were supportive.

How To Become Immortal







Last week I took my mother to see an incredible production of A Raisin In the Sun in Red Bank, NJ (it’s really good and there is a Surf Taco nearby, but the show ends on October 8th). Afterwards, we went for an early dinner. At the next table, two older women where talking about a current social/political issue. They lambasted the other side as being selfish and stupid, spouted off incorrect facts and statistics, and proudly clinked wine glass about how they agreed with each other. While I found their comments to be noxious, my bigger issue was with their process. People from both sides of the political spectrum often engage in personal attacks, have a lack of understanding of the issue (economic, historical), have incorrect or cherry-picked statistics, and tend to talk primarily with others that already already agree with them. They kept going on and on, and I found myself growing irritated. My first thought was a Larry David-esque “This is why I can’t go anywhere” and then I made the command decision to not engage them. This decision was made on the basis that (a) they are very entrenched in their position; (b) there were just two of them; and (c) they are old and not going to be voting too much longer anyway.

The first guest lecture I ever gave was to a sophomore honors English class when I was a high school senior. I was invited to talk about A Catcher in the Rye by a teacher who gave me a D a year and a half earlier. I finally read the book a year later after it was assigned and it spoke to me at 17 – it also inspired me to dive deep into other literature. Early on in college, I was invited to talk at both Rutgers and other colleges on the topics of addiction, Shakespeare, or 20th century American literature. By my third year in college, I was substitute teaching in high schools regularly, and I jumped at the chance to give lessons in history and English (ironically, the first class I ever subbed was French 3, which I failed as both a sophomore and senior). After graduation, I taught English to students as young as 12 and as old as 79 in Tokyo for all of 2003. After finishing a social work degree in 2006, I took a job teaching high school English in Elizabeth for the next three years (I’ve written about that before).

In 2008, I started teaching at the Summer School of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, and have taught there continuously ever since (I also teach seminars throughout the year and have also been training NJ, NY and PA police through the Center for over a year now). In 2009, I started teaching at Essex County College. I taught multiple courses there for three semesters. In 2011, I began teaching at the Rutgers School of Social Work and also started co-teaching a course with Dean Lea Stewart at the Rutgers School of Communication. I have taught 2-4 courses each term between the two departments continuously now for 13 straight semesters.

During my last year of teaching at Elizabeth High School, I used a book titled Poetry 180. Every day, I read a different modern poem to my students and we discussed it. My favorite poem from that book was written by a woman who remembered herself as a high school sophomore writing to her father, “Dad, you are most yourself when you are swimming” it began (along with Shelley’s “Look on my works ye mighty and despair,” it is the two lines of poetry I utter the most). This has led to the question that I ask all of my students and everyone who has since sat in on a training that I’ve conducted – when are you most yourself? To answer this question, you might want to talk to your family, friends and co-workers.

Despite all of the many wonderful relationships and interesting activities I engage in, there is nothing that defines me nor shows me at my best nor makes me happy like teaching. And as much as I like conducting trainings and giving speeches, there is no teaching I like more than my in-person classes at the undergraduate level at Rutgers. This semester, I have 27 students in my Social Welfare Policy Class. I was asked to teach the course in August and it came with a ready-made, departmental syllabus. I’ve found the textbook to be quite good and I’ve kept the assignments but tweaked them a bit (the lectures are all mine). In our lessons on social and cultural issues, I spend a great amount of time talking about the history of the issue, how other states or countries have addressed it, the conservative and middle and liberal positions, and how it both currently and potentially could affect the budget. I have my students read pieces on the importance of listening to people you disagree with, which states take the most money from the Federal government, and a variety of other topics. I’m careful not to teach them what to think, but rather how to look at issues, know the economics, consider your opponents’ view (even if it is personally offensive), and how to talk to people that you disagree with (so basically, don’t be like those two old ladies at lunch last week).

Regardless of your politics, you may be frustrated by the fact that most issues that are topical today were being argued about 20, 50 and even 100 years ago. It takes a long time to finally settle social and political issues (it was 80 years between Seneca Falls and the 19th Amendment). Economic ones are constantly being refought. I’m not a fan of social media activism (though it may be able to swing elections). I don’t see the point of like-minded people sitting around and complaining to each other. Shouting at family or friends isn’t effective either. Change is often a long, slow process (water on a rock…the water eventually wins).

For those of you that are worried, concerned, or even outraged at recent events or regarding a number of social, political or economic policies, take some solace that I’m training these young people to be policy problem solvers. I have 100-150 undergraduate/graduate students a semester for 50 hours of instruction. This is my ninth year of university teaching, so I’ve put my thumbprint on somewhere between 1800-2700 young minds (I hope to do this for another 40+ years).

Some of my former students are now teaching and/or supervising others. For those of you that are horrified with the current state of things, I encourage you to take the long view. If you can, guide, mentor, supervise or teach someone younger than you. Each mind we truly touch eventually reaches out to someone else and thus, we become immortal, as our lessons are passed on long after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. 




To the Parents Who Lost a Young Child

In the last week, three couples that I have some connection to lost a child. Two of the deaths were the end result of a long struggle with severe medical problems, while the other was because of a car crash. I have worked with people on grief for many years, and spoken with hundreds of parents who lost an offspring, usually as a result of a drug overdose. But I have also counseled several who lost a young child or baby, and it is clear to me that burying a child is the most painful of all human experiences. This loss will always be with you, and may, in fact, define you.

This is not an area I specialize in nor claim a particular expertise. Though I have experienced my own difficult losses (my grandmother in 1995, my friend’s overdose in 2002, a divorce a few years ago), they are not as soul-searing as the loss of a child. Still, those losses, a highly developed sense of empathy, and my experience helping people with grief compels me to offer the following advice:

  • If you have another child, you should talk to him or her about what happened in clear and honest terms. Do not lie or us euphemisms. Your child or other children know that something incredibly awful has happened – children are incredibly attuned to their parents moods, facial expressions, body language and presence. Even if your other child is 2 1/2 years old, tell them.
  • It is also very important that you tell your other child (children) that he or she is not sick nor likely to die. All too often, when kids see this kind of thing happen to a sibling, they wonder if it will happen to them and they never ask or tell an adult what they are worrying about.
  • Your friends and family don’t know what to do or say. Some will avoid you completely, because they do not want to intrude or do not know what to say. Others might hang around or call all the time, hoping to comfort you with their presence or some activity. Though this is very difficult, it will help everyone involved (including you) to let people know what you need. And please be aware that what you need during the first week may be different than month three or year two.
  • The previous point may be tough to accept. You might think, “Who cares if my sorrow makes other people uncomfortable? Why should I worry about them when I’m the one who has lost my world?” Those are fair thoughts, but you still need other people. As does your family. Being clear that you need space or company or words of condolence or silence will ultimately help you.
  • There may be some people who say things like “his time was up” or that “God called her home” or “he is in a better place” or that it “was God’s will.” You may find it consoling, or you might find it incredible offensive and aggravating. People that say this to you mean well. They just don’t know what else to say. If it offends you, let them know and ask them not to repeat it.
  • Regarding your spouse, partner or ex: they are the person that also suffers this tragic loss the worst. He or she will grieve differently than you. It may come out as constant crying, silence, rage, withdrawal, throwing oneself into work, talking, some combination of all of the above, or perhaps something else entirely. I have seen couples get angry with each other at how the other grieves. You have each experienced the most terrible thing, don’t compound it by attacking each other.
  • Even though you are in a daze, you need to leave your home each day. Whether it is to go to work, school, church, therapy, the gym, grocery shopping or something else, you must venture out into the world. Time is going to feel incredibly slow and miserable, and walking around the house from room to room and staring at the walls or outside will not help. This is extremely common behavior.
  • Consider going to a support group or therapy. This may be an anathema to you, but a support group will be filled with people who have the same experience and can show you how they got better or worse. The support groups can be helpful years down the road, when other people have a hard time comprehending that this loss is still very much an active part of your life. A therapist who specializes in grief can provide positive support from a neutral source over a period of months or years.

Waking up each day may be the worst part of your day – as you come to and remember your loss and the wave of pain washes over you. The days will keep coming. I have no special words of comfort – there are no special words. There is the aforementioned advice, which may or may not work. You may not want it to work, but please consider trying.


An Incredible Free Service for Veterans, Reservists, National Guard members, and their Families

On August 8th, I toured the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic in Philadelphia. It is located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, just west of Center City. There are other clinics in NYC, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, and Fayetville, NC. There are several more slated to open within the next year. To find the contact information for each clinic, click here.

Steven A. Cohen was born in New York. He went to Wharton and made his money on Wall Street. The 2017 estimate of his wealth is around $13B. His son served in Afghanistan. Mr. Cohen and his wife established the Cohen Veterans Network in 2016 with an initial donation of $275M. The clinics currently provide services for veterans, reservists, and National Guard members. They also provide counseling for family members. They see people for one hour a week. If people need a higher level of care, the professionals at the clinic work tirelessly to find appropriate services.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Pete Freudenberger, a social worker who earned his MSW from UPenn. He is also a veteran with a very interesting story. He is the Outreach Manager for the Philadelphia clinic and can be reached at

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic was featured in an article on on June 15. You can read it here.

This photo was taken from the aforementioned article on



Are You Suffering Work Burn Out?

Social Workers and other helping professionals have high rates of burn out. People in the field will talk about it without describing how to actually look for it. I’ve put together a 20-question self-quiz that professionals can take to evaluate themselves. While it is not scientific, it should give you a good feel for where you are and whether  (and what) you need to change (this can be used to gauge burnout in other professions as well, though questions 2 and 18 should be altered or eliminated).

For a printable version of this, click here.


Are You At Risk of Burning Out?

A Self-Test for a Social Worker/Drug Counselor/Preventionist/School Counselor/Advocate

  1. Are 10% or more of your hours unpaid? (consider work from home, or emails & phone calls outside of your regular work day)
  2. Do you get weekly supervision of at least one hour per week?
  3. Do you have a self-care plan?
  4. Does it take more than 15 minutes for you to fall asleep at least 2x a week?
  5. Do you wake up in the middle of the night at least 2x a week?
  6. Do you sleep longer or shorter than you planned at least 2x a week?
  7. Do you wake up and feel like you haven’t had a restful sleep at least 2x a week?
  8. Do other people get credit for your work?
  9. Are you happy with your exercise routine?
  10. Does your work schedule or stress cause problems with your family (parents, significant other, kids) at least twice a month?
  11. Do you take an out-of-state vacation at least once a year?
  12. Do you feel like you have neglected friends?
  13. Do you feel like you have neglected hobbies?
  14. Are you in therapy at least 2x a month?
  15. Do you have conflicts (passive or aggressive) with co-workers at least 2x a month?
  16. Do office politics interfere with your job?
  17. Can you talk to someone about work stress other than your significant other?
  18. Have you had a client or student die within the last year?
  19. Do you know exactly what is expected of you at work?
  20. Does your job cause you to compromise any of your values?


Scoring guide:

+1 for yes: 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 20

-1 for yes: 2, 3, 9, 11, 14, 17, 19

-3 – -7: You have a very good work-life balance and are a model for others

-2 3:   A worker with good mental health and decent job satisfaction will fall into this range

4 – 5:   Your job is a minor problem. Make a few tweaks to increase your health and possibly productivity

6 – 8:   Your job is a major problem. You should talk to your supervisor and therapist about making some major changes

9 – 13:  You should consider leaving your job in order to get your sanity back


Seniors on Dope: What Medicare Is and Isn’t Doing in NJ

This article was written by Andrew Walsh that I edited. Andrew is a grad student of mine at the Rutgers School of Social Work. This is the third article that he wrote under my guidance this year (his first piece was on addiction hotlines and his second one on Medicaid in NJ was published last month).


Substance abuse continues to be a topic that receives coverage on both a state and federal level. While the main focus is on opiate abuse and deaths among young adults, there is another population that abuses alcohol and drugs at a higher rate. On January 1st 2011, the first baby boomer turned 65 years old, marking the transition of baby boomers into the older adult population.  The United States has a baby boomer population of 76 million. New Jersey has a population of 2.2 million baby boomers, 1.2 million of which are over the age of 65. With the onset of physical and cognitive decline associated with aging, this population will put strain on medical and behavioral health facilities. Unlike prior generations, the baby boomer generation has had extensive exposure to alcohol and drug use growing up. This exposure has created an attitude of acceptance among baby-boomers regarding the continued use of illicit drugs and alcohol later in life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) estimates that approximately 17% of this population is actively affected by the misuse of alcohol and/or prescription drugs. In New Jersey this translates into 204,000 older adults actively misusing alcohol and drugs. In 2015, approximately 1678 individuals over the age of 60 received inpatient treatment for substance abuse and misuse. Statistically, less than 1% of seniors who would benefit from substance abuse treatment actually received treatment. Seniors face unique problems with alcohol and drug misuse and abuse:

  • Physical and cognitive changes decrease seniors tolerance for alcohol and drugs
  • Increased rate of prescriptions places them at risk for adverse medication interactions
  • Common symptoms of substance abuse such as unsteady gait or forgetfulness are often mistaken as decreasing physical functions or dementia
  • Seniors are less likely to seek professional help for their substance abuse
  • Seniors are more likely to be isolated so their substance abuse goes unnoticed
  • Health care professionals rarely screen seniors for substance abuse
  • Current screening tools are designed for use criteria that is not relevant to seniors such as adverse impact performance in school and work
  • Lack of senior specific substance abuse programs

Older adults have significant physiological differences than younger adults that increase their sensitivity to alcohol and drugs.  As individuals age, they start to lose lean body mass and water which both decrease metabolism. With slowing metabolic rates, the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and drugs slows, thereby accumulating in fat stores in the body. Prescription use is very common among older adults. A survey on women over the age of 65 showed that 94% took at least one medication daily, and 57% took five+ medications daily. The same survey showed similar rates among men. Cognitive decline is often associated with aging and can interfere with older adults’ ability to monitor their intake of alcohol and drugs and compliance with their prescriptions.

Older adult substance abusers can be broken down into two distinct groups. One group is comprised of substance abusers who had early-onset substance abuse prior to the age of 60. This group of early-onset substance abusers is typically male and is medically compromised after years of substance abuse. The later-onset substance abuser-group is mostly comprised of women and is less compromised medically due to their short exposure to the harmful effects of substance abuse. Later-onset substance abusers typically start abusing alcohol and drugs following stressful life events such as the death of a partner or friends, retirement, changes in loving situations, and declining physical health.

Pharmacology is used extensively with substance abusers for abstinence purposes. However, the physiological condition of older adults prevents the use of pharmacologic treatments for substance abuse. The medications for alcohol abuse put seniors at risk for dehydration as well as cardiovascular issues. There are opioid blocker medications that are effective in reducing the pleasurable effects and craving of opioids. However, the blocking agents also prevent the relief of pain, which is common and usually chronic with older adults.

In New Jersey, the government is pursuing a number of actions to actively combat substance abuse among the elderly. Governor Christie pushed for legislation that limits the initial prescription of opioids for acute pain to five days. New Jersey has also joined the prescription monitoring program (NJPMP). This system allows doctors to access patient prescription records for the previous two years, thereby decreasing the frequency of doctor shopping. From 2014 to 2016, New Jersey opioid prescriptions decreased 11% while physicians use for patient searches increased from 1.4 million in 2014 to 2.5 million in 2016. Governor Christie has also called for an additional 864 beds for inpatient substance abuse treatment. However, at this time none of these beds are earmarked for Medicare recipients. The NJ Department of Health and Human Services provides educational seminars to seniors about medication management and substance abuse. In 2015, 154 presentations were attended by approximately 3,300 seniors.

Individuals who abuse alcohol and drugs typically experience withdrawal when they stop using. For older adults who are already in a medically compromised physical state, withdrawal places significant stress on an already stressed body. Withdrawal in older adults places significant stress on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. The safest treatment option for older adult substance abusers is that they use a medically monitored withdrawal management process. However, according to the New Jersey Connect for Recovery hotline, there are only six facilities in New Jersey that accept Medicare for in-patient detox.

The facilities that accept Medicare are Princeton House, Core Health, Summit Oaks, Bergen Regional, and St. Clare’s. Combined these facilities have approximately 200 beds that are available for Medicare recipients for withdrawal management. With the average withdrawal management stay being seven days for older adults, 10,000 older adults will be able to receive substance abuse treatment on an in-patient basis in New Jersey.  This means 1 in 20 older adults who need in-patient detox will actually receive it.

However, not all beds available for Medicare recipients are actually earmarked specifically as only for Medicare recipients. Bergen Regional accepts clients Medicare, Medicaid, and those with no insurance. Princeton House and St. Clare’s accept clients with Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. Summit Oaks and Core Health accept those with Medicare and private insurance. This decreases the number of beds available for Medicare detox to approximately 100 beds. This means that 1 in 30 older adults who need in-patient detox will actually receive it.

There are a number of actions to be taken that will help address substance abuse among seniors:

  • Expand current DHHS educational seminars to reach more seniors
  • Create public service messages geared toward the adult children of seniors to educate on the signs, symptoms, and dangers of substance abuse among seniors
  • Expand the number of Medicare beds available for inpatient treatment
  • Make the use of NJPMP mandatory
  • Use screening tools that do not underreport substance abuse among seniors
  • Develop senior specific outpatient programs
  • Encourage seniors to attend mutual help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous

Even if all of these changes are implemented, the overall number of seniors who are substance abusers most likely increase as more baby boomers turn 65. The actions described above are meant to produce sustainable decreases over time. As more baby boomers retire and start to decline physically and cognitively, coupled with an utter lack of senior specific services, substance abuse among baby boomers is likely to get much worse. Even if all of these changes are implemented, the design of Medicare reimbursement for doctors on a fee for service basis encourages doctors to spend less time with patients. Unless this aspect of the Medicare system is redesigned, no sustainable progress can be made among seniors with substance abuse problems. A tremendous amount of work needs to be done if there is to be any improvement in substance abuse among seniors.

Andrew Walsh, MHRM, MSW Intern is currently pursuing his MSW and LCADC at Rutgers University. Prior to returning to Rutgers, he worked in the Gulf of Mexico oilfield as an internal business consultant. Andrew is a lover of books, cuisine, and theater.



The Medicaid Addiction Treatment Problem in NJ

This article was written by Andrew Walsh and edited by Frank Greenagel. Andrew is a grad student of mine at the Rutgers School of Social Work. This is the second article that he wrote under my guidance this year (his first piece was on addiction hotlines).


Addiction is a very popular topic in New Jersey. Television commercials focus on individuals who struggled, got help, and live a redeemed life. Radio ads discuss addiction and assure that help is only one phone call away at a variety of 24/7 hotlines. Glossy print ads show pristine facilities, smiling patrons, and families that are enjoying improved days. Governor Christie pushed for legislation that increases access to treatment. He has created new phone lines to provide guidance, expanded the number of in-patient beds, and signed legislation mandating a minimum of 14 days in-patient for addiction. At first glance, New Jersey appears to be poised for significant strides forward.

New Jersey has a population of approximately 9 million residents. Of the 9 million, 1.8 million are Medicaid recipients (half of whom are children). Conservative studies estimate that substance use disorder among NJ Medicaid recipients occurs at a frequency of 16.5%. By these estimates, New Jersey has at least 150,000 Medicaid recipients who suffer from substance misuse disorders.  Even with this conservatively low number, New Jersey has enough Medicaid recipients suffering from addiction to fill Yankee Stadium three times over.

For Medicaid recipients in NJ, options for in-patient detox are limited. At this time there are only seven facilities that accept Medicaid for detox. The largest is Bergen Regional, in Paramus, which has 90 beds for detox with an average waitlist of 5-14 days. St. Clare’s, in Boonton, has 16 beds for detox with a waitlist of approximately 14 days. Christ Hospital is located in Jersey City, has 8 beds for detox with a waitlist of 3-7 days. Hunterdon Medical Center is in Flemington and has 14 beds available for detox. Princeton House, located in Princeton, has a total of 27 beds across two programs for detox.  Steps is a program offered by AtlantiCare in Atlantic county (we could not confirm the number of beds available). Finally, Straight and Narrow, located in Paterson NJ, has 20 beds for detox, though we have been told that they are only for people aged 18 to 21 (the same age limitation exists for New Hope and Maryville).

Between the seven facilities there are a little over 175 beds available for detox. A typical detox stay will last five days. Each bed can provide a 5-day detox for 73 patients per year. If each bed available for detox for Medicaid recipients in NJ was filled every day of the year, approximately 1 out of every 14 Medicaid substance abusers would be able to get in-patient substance abuse detox.  However, while there are 175+ beds available for Medicaid recipients for detox, not all beds are specifically designated for Medicaid detox. The 90 beds at Bergen Regional as well as the 20 beds at Straight and Narrow are for Medicaid and Medicare recipients, as well as indigent population. The 14 beds at Hunterdon Medical Center as well as the 8 beds at Christ Hospital are for substance abuse detox as well as emergent psychiatric patients. The 27 beds available at Princeton House are for individuals with private insurance as well as Medicaid. Taking all of these factors into account, on any given day there may be only 100 beds available for Medicaid detox. Accounting for these changes alters the ratio of bed per patients increases from 1 in 14 to 1 in 20. To sum this up, it is very hard to get a Medicaid detox bed in NJ.

With so few beds, the wait-lists at the seven facilities has grown in length. Due to surges in requests for services, waiting for a bed can sometimes take weeks. A quick look at state alcohol related deaths and overdoses shows the danger associated with waiting. Excessive alcohol consumption and abuse resulted in 1,754 deaths in 2013 in New Jersey. Overdose deaths in New Jersey increased 30% from 1223 in 2012 to 1587 in 2015. The increase in overdose deaths is driven by heroin overdoses and fentanyl deaths, which increased 61% and 890% respectively from 2012 to 2015. Opioid overdoses are shown in the chart below. Additionally, benzodiazepine deaths  are commonly found in deaths associated with opioid overdoses. In 2013 3090 NJ residents suffered alcohol-related deaths and drug overdoses.


Year Total Opioid Death Heroin Fentanyl Prescription Painkillers and Benzodiazepines
2012 1223 596 42 585
2013 1336 749 46 541
2014 1304 776 142 386
2015 1587 961 417 209


Every day an average of nine New Jersey residents die from drug overdoses and alcohol abuse.  New Jersey has an adult population of 6.5 million. Statistically 52.7% of adults drink alcohol, with 10.39% of those that drink exhibiting substance use disorder. This translates in 355,909 adults abusing alcohol. Stephen Stirling of the Star Ledger wrote that New Jersey has at least 120,000 residents that are addicted to opioids. Between alcohol and opioid use disorder, the total is 475,000 New Jersey residents with a potentially life threatening substance use disorder.  Based on these calculations, 6.5 substance abusing adults per 1000 die per year. Applying this mortality rate to the Medicaid population with substance use disorders, an estimated 975 New Jersey Medicaid recipients with substance use disorders die per year. This means that every day, 2.75 Medicaid recipients die from substance use disorders. Over the course of a week, nearly 20 Medicaid recipients will die from substance use disorders. Based on the limitations of available beds and the length of the wait-lists, it is inevitable that many will die while they are waiting for a bed.

New Jersey has approximately 2400 in-patient beds for psychiatric services. To increase access to treatment for New Jersey residents, the NJ Department of Health called for the creation of 864 new beds for substance abuse in New Jersey. While adding new beds for in-patient substance abuse treatment is positive, only 5% these new beds are specifically earmarked for Medicaid recipients. With the addition of 43 beds for Medicaid recipients, the ratio of patients to bed on a yearly basis drops from 1 in 20 to 1 in 15. While this is an improvement, those beds will do little to decrease the length of wait-lists at the few facilities that actually accept Medicaid.

A common reason cited for the lack of Medicaid beds is the low reimbursement rates from Medicaid for substance abuse. Historically, reimbursement rates were so low that facilities lost money for every Medicaid recipient they took. While this argument may have had some validity in the past, it is not as relevant anymore due to recent changes. In 2016 Governor Christ Christie announced a $127 million allocation to increase reimbursement rates for Medicaid substance abuse treatment. The allocation is built on the premise that increased reimbursement rates will be attractive to service providers. The day rate for Medicaid in-patient detox was doubled from $204 to $408. At the new reimbursement levels, the reimbursement rate is no longer a barrier to entry for service providers. The big concern is that 85% of the allocation comes from a federal block grant (if the Feds cut the grants, then these Medicaid programs are in massive danger).

The lack of Medicaid beds for in-patient substance abuse is the direct result of a law signed 50 years ago that is still in existence today. The Medicaid Institutions for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion was signed as part of the Social Security Act in 1965. The IMD exclusion prohibits the use of federal Medicaid financing for substance abuse treatment in residential facilities that have more than 16 beds if 50% of the patients had psychiatric disorders. Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), substance use disorders are classified as mental disorders. Therefore, any rehab facility that only treats substance use disorders must still abide by the IMD exclusion.  The intention of the IMD exclusion was to shift responsibility for the cost of addiction treatment from the federal government to the state governments and to combat institutionalization. The unintended consequence of the IMD exclusion is that the 16-bed cap has created a significant barrier to entry for service providers looking to expand into Medicaid. With the cap so low, coupled with the low profit margin, it is not fiscally in the interest of service providers to expand services.  With the recent expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, the number of Medicaid recipients has grown. However, the IMD exclusion continues to maintain its strangulation hold on access to in-patient beds, thereby not allowing service providers to leverage the number of beds.

Possible changes to the IMD exclusion are limited because it is a federal statute. Even if states wanted to expand Medicaid offerings for substance abuse, they would be unable to without significant legislative efforts. There are a number of options to expand Medicaid offerings for addiction treatment. One option is for Congress to fully repeal the IMD exclusion. However, as the IMD exclusion has not been updated since 1988, it is high unlikely that Congress will repeal it when they have not pursued easier path of updating it. Additionally, repealing the IMD exclusion is not fiscally viable and therefore is unlikely. Another option is to increase the bed limit beyond the current cap of 16. While this option is promising, increasing the bed limit without increasing federal funding, resources would be exhausted early in each fiscal year. The most promising reform approach is for the states to file a section 1115 innovation waiver. This waiver allows states to design their own Medicaid programs as long as the programs provide equivalent benefits as those offered in the Federal Medicaid program. There are a number of states that have successfully filed section 1115 innovation waivers. These states include New York, California, Maryland, and Massachusetts. Several other states have filled the section 1115 waiver and are awaiting a ruling.

Filing for a section 1115 innovation waiver is the best option at this time to increase access to substance abuse services for Medicaid recipients. However, pursuing the waiver is not without potentially significant drawbacks. There is cause for concern that the current president will cut funding for Medicaid services. If the waiver is approved and service providers expand their offerings, they will have significant exposure if the funding is cut. Additionally, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, almost 556,000 New Jersey Residents will lose their Medicaid coverage. With such a drastic cut, the number of beds required will still need to increase but not nearly as much as before. Service Providers that expand their offerings may be caught with increased overhead costs without any increase in revenue due to a much smaller client population to serve.

Substance abuse services need to be dramatically increased for Medicaid recipients in New Jersey. Every week some die while they are waiting for a bed. Even if current offerings were streamlined for maximum efficiency, only 1 in 14 would be able to get a bed for treatment. Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates makes providing services financially viable for organizations. Filing for a waiver increases the number of beds accessible. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is a threat to substance abuse treatment for Medicaid recipients. Additionally, funding cuts will threaten any progress made. Overall, treatment services for Medicaid recipients need to improve. Every dollar spent on treatment saves approximately seven dollars that would be spent on jail, court fees, attorney fees, and emergency room services. With the Medicaid population being so large and having such a frequency of substance abuse, extensive changes need to be made immediately.


Andrew Walsh, MHRM, MSW Intern, is currently pursuing his MSW and LCADC at Rutgers University. Prior to returning to Rutgers, he worked in the Gulf of Mexico oilfield as an internal business consultant. Andrew is a lover of books, cuisine, and theater.

A Plan to Regulate Sober/Recovery Housing

There has been all kinds of terrible news about the problems caused by sober/recovery homes in NJ, PA, FLA, OH and a number of other states. These concerns have existed for years, and they include overcrowding, a lack of expertise, workers that are using drugs, and death. These programs are neither licensed, nor regulated, and rarely supervised in any way by a true substance abuse expert. I sent this letter to the NJ State Senate Health Committee on May 13, 2017, and I am publishing a copy of it now in the effort to further the discussion and help the public.



To the NJ State Senate Health Committee:

I am writing regarding  S-3161 (recovery housing).  Many states around the country have had problems with their sober/halfway/recovery houses. Florida created a certification that went into effect last year, but most of them have still not earned it. They are still mired in problems. Ohio created a voluntary certification (that is overseen by the industry) and the state also provided 2.5M to support the expansion of services. Because of the voluntary nature of the certification, the Ohio sober houses are still rife with problems (no curfew, people using, little to zero accountability, client brokering).

I suggest the following:

  • A state certification or license be required to own/operate a sober/recovery house
  • All staff must submit to a criminal background check
  • 24/7 staffing required, particularly overnight
  • A minimum urine screens of at least 1x a week (self reporting abstinence from substances is not effective). These can be instant tests, rather than send-away lab tests. Screens should test for at least 7 different substances and always include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, benzodiazepines, heroin, opiates, and methamphetamine.
  • A requirement of a blackout period for the first 30 days. This means that there is a curfew for new residents during that period (10 pm to 7 am, with early morning exceptions for work).
  • At least monthly supervision of all workers by a LCADC to ensure quality control. Despite this not being a clinical setting, there should be some oversight and supervision.
  • Clients that are on medication assisted therapies cannot be denied. Many sober homes are operated by people in recovery, and they often have a bias against medication assisted therapy. Those on medication assisted therapy should be required to adhere to best practices, which mean weekly urine screens and outside counseling of at least 1 hour a week.
  • Reasonable access to 12-step meetings and treatment (with a 1 mile walk) or a van service is provided at least once a day for each.
  • An exemption from ADA compliance, as this can be too costly.
  • Penalties for violations including fines, revocation of license/certificate and possible jail time.
  • Oversight of the programs provided by some state agency.

Owners and operators of these programs will argue that because they are in recovery, that they know better than DMHAS and the state government. Please do not be swayed by arguments that regulation will force them to close. There are a few programs that exist in the state already that exceed my recommendations and they are financially well. Please do not fall prey to their arguments that they can self-regulate and that the industry will watch itself (I can’t think of an industry that does a good job regulating itself).


Three Modern American Playwrights That You Should Know About

I attend, on average, about one play a week (some weeks are stronger than others – between May 24 and June 3, I’ll see six plays). I also read one or two plays a week as well. We are currently enjoying a very strong time in American theater, but there are three modern playwrights that I want to highlight.

Lynn Nottage was born in Brooklyn in 1964. She attended Brown and then Yale. Ms. Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2009 for Ruined, a play set in a war-ravaged African country. Its main characters are all survivors of rape and genital mutilation as a result of the ongoing conflicts. She won the Pulitzer again in 2017 for Sweat, making her the first woman ever to win twice in drama. Sweat takes place in Reading, PA, and discusses the decline of the American working class (and how it has affected all races). The McCarter Theater in Princeton is currently showing her play, Intimate Apparel, which provides a snapshot of New Yorkers in 1905 who are otherwise memoirless. She teaches at both Columbia and Yale.

Stephen Adley Guirgis was born in NYC in 1965 to an Irish mother and Egyptian father. He has some interesting tv/movie acting and writing credits, but it’s his skill as a playwright that sets him apart. He won the 2015 Pulitzer for Between Riverside and Crazy, which features police work, addiction and relationships.I became aware of him about 10 years ago when I saw The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Rutgers. It is a play that is brutally honest, vulgar, and offers up stunning challenges to authority and world-revered figures. In the next year, the Signature Theater in NYC will show Jesus Hoped the A Train (about prison life), Our Lady of 121st Street (my 2nd favorite play of his after Judas), and it will debut a new play in 2018.

Ayad Akhtar was born in Staten Island in 1970. He is of Pakistani descent. He spent part of his childhood in Wisconsin and attended Brown and then Columbia. He won the 2013 Pulitzer for Disgraced. I read the play last January, and I was so moved by it that I immediately started searching to where it was currently playing (it was the most produced play in America during the 15-16 season). I found that the main character was smart, charismatic, and relatable, and his eventual tragedy was quite upsetting. I discovered that it was playing at the excellent Huntingdon Theater in Boston. Despite a recent heavy snowstorm, I drove up (with my parents in tow) to see it. We saw the play, stayed for the post-play talk with the actors, drove home and arrived in NJ around 4 a.m. We repeated that exact process this past April when we returned to Boston to see  The Who and the What (which is a comedy). In both plays, Mr. Akhtar portrays a Muslim experience in America. Some of his characters are proud of their Muslim heritage, while others challenge it or even outright reject it. Of all the playwrights currently living, there is no one whose future work I am more looking forward to.