UNION COUNTY — New Jersey lawmakers stepped to the plate last week in a bipartisan effort to try and intercept the heroin epidemic, rather than relying on the old approaches of “just saying no to drugs.”
The widespread sense that heroin and opiate use is spiraling out of control throughout the state caught the attention of legislators, who rallied together to draft legislation to address the critical issue that is destroying families and young adults.
Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vitale, along with bipartisan legislators from both the senate and assembly, put together the comprehensive 21-bill package that focuses on prevention, treatment and recovery efforts for those addicted to opiates.
“The loss of life to heroin and prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions here in New Jersey and it is time that we take a comprehensive look at ways we can reduce the occurrences of these overdoses,” said Vitale, adding “the war on drugs approach has not worked.”
Vitale explained during the announcement that the legislation being introduced does not seek to punish those suffering from addiction but rather improve access to education and treatment.
The legislator said that by reviewing ways to educate parents and families on the risks of becoming addicted to prescription medication and ensuring those who need help gain access to it, Vitale said “we can reverse the rapid trend of increasing opiate addiction and overdose deaths across the state.”
Last year the state lost 550 people to this disease, many young adults. Efforts to reduce this growing number are addressed in the package of 21 bills.
For example, there is legislation that would expand the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program to increase participation, broaden access and improve surveillance by requiring doctors to register and cross reference the online database when prescribing medications.
“The abuse of heroin and prescription drugs in New Jersey is a deadly crisis hitting virtually every community and the only way we are going to beat it is with a devoted bipartisan effort,” said Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, who represents portions of Union County.
Kean noted that the bill package changes how the state deals with drug abuse, especially where it is most dangerous – in the younger age range of the population.
The bills are aimed at improving the state’s treatment and recovery options for those with addiction problems, while increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate for behavioral health care services.
The package also focuses on evidence based healthcare strategies and treatment aimed at the root cause of addiction, as well as the emotional and physical problems leading to addiction.
Vitale is also working with fellow legislators on bills to remove barriers for those who need substance abuse treatment to increase the number of doctors who take Medicaid patients.
One legislator said far too many people are being turned away from treatment each year so it is critical that this change in order to properly address the opiate addiction problem in the state.
The legislation was spurred by the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse’s Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use by New Jersey’s Youth and Young Adult’s 2014 report, which LocalSource referred to in its recent four-part series on heroin in suburbia.
Healthcare advocates, though, maintained that the same goals can be achieved without adding more legislation.
Vitale said there still is a stigma attached to addiction and mental illness and addiction is a “chronic, lifelong disease like any other disease.”
“When someone suffers from heart disease or cancer or diabetes they aren’t told that there isn’t a hospital bed or an outpatient facility,” Vitale said in a statement, adding “we talk freely and openly about our surgeries, our hip replacements and our knee replacements and we even show off our scars. But rarely if ever do we openly discuss addiction or mental illness.”
The legislation would require healthcare practitioners to inform patients of the addiction potential of controlled dangerous substances before prescribing them, in addition to requiring schools to incorporate evidence based standards and practices for teaching students about drugs. The state will also spend $5 million for abuse prevention.