TRENTON, N.J. — The fight against the opioid drug epidemic — both in eliminating the stigma against addicts and savings lives — has always been a priority for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
In his state of the state address this week, he declared that it would be his mission for his final year in office.
The Republican Christie outlined a series of initiatives and ideas to tackle the problem that claimed the lives of nearly 1,600 people in New Jersey in 2015 and left families and friends of overdose victims searching for answers.
A look at two of Christie’s stated priorities for the next year:
WHAT CHRISTIE SAID: He called on state lawmakers to approve a change to require insurers to pay for at least six months of either inpatient or outpatient drug treatment. “Whether your child lives or dies should not be subject to a denial letter from an insurance company,” Christie said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Christie’s proposal received a warm reception among lawmakers, but as they begin to draft the legislation with the governor, possible stumbling blocks are emerging.
Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale, a Christie ally on the issue, says lawmakers and the governor have to sort out which plans would fall under his mandate considering the state only regulates about 40 percent of the insurance providers. The others are regulated federally.
Another issue will be paying for increased coverage, likely through higher premiums, and ensuring there are enough beds in hospitals and treatment centers.
“There’s political will, but it’s a cost and capacity issue,” Vitale said.
The state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, said it’s willing to work with him, but stopped short of saying whether it supported the extension.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, who has worked with Christie on prisoner re-entry and drug treatment issues, said that getting the change through the Legislature against the potential pressure from insurance lobbyists could be a substantial fight.
“The governor is on the side of the angels, but this will be a major battle,” McGreevey said.
WHAT CHRISTIE SAID: Christie wants to limit doctors to prescribing a five-day supply of opioid drugs when they first see patients with an acute health issues and require them to then assess the patients to determine if they need a longer supply.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Attorney General Christopher Porrino said his office hopes to get the regulations to the state’s office of administrative law within the next few weeks. Health professionals and others would then have 30 days to comment before the rules go into effect.
The proposal drew an immediate rebuke from the Medical Society of New Jersey, which said that statutory medication limits decrease the quality of care and life for pain patients.
Mishael Azam, chief operating officer of the Medical Society of New Jersey, said that doctors are already changing their habits and prescribing less opioid drugs. She pointed to recent changes that doctors have embraced, including a prescription monitoring program.
“Give them some time to work,” Azam said. “Shifting now with a new mandate and new restrictions isn’t not only unnecessary, but can also be overkill and do more harm than good.”
Legislation to create a seven-day limit stalled last year in the Legislature. The measure passed in the state Senate last year, but has not yet been called up for a vote in an Assembly committee.
A handful of states, including Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine, have enacted similar restrictions in the past year.