Advocates, critics react to Christie's sweeping drug plan


, @KenSerranoAPP


During his State of the State address, NJ Governor Chris Christie shared AJ Solomon's story of addiction and recovery. Solomon was a former Christie staffer with a heroin addiction who will now be opening a treatment center. POOL VIDEO BY NJTV

Anti-drug advocates hailed Gov. Chris Christie's pledge Tuesday to make New Jersey's addiction crisis a top job in the final year of his term in office, but there were worries about funding and follow through.

Using soaring rhetoric, heartfelt personal stories of loss and unmistakable zeal, the governor used his State of the State address to outline a series of new initiatives to battle  the opioid epidemic that has devastated New Jersey.

Paul Ressler, who lost his son Corey to a heroin overdose and now runs an organization that informs the public about the use of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, praised the goal of getting more teenagers into treatment. Christie promised to change state regulations that exclude 18 and 19 year olds from treatment facilities for children.

Christie said changing the rules would make 200 beds statewide available to addicts in that age group.

Ressler, who also serves as the vice chairman of the board of Daytop New Jersey, an inpatient residential treatment facility for adolescents with substance abuse and mental health problems, said the rule as it stands has kept Daytop from treating more young addicts and has left beds empty.

“We’ve struggled financially because of it,” Ressler said, estimating that up to 50 percent of beds have been unfilled at times. “This allows us to do our work. We can get more kids off the streets and into treatment.”

Christie committed an additional $12 million of funding to provide those treatment beds.

Advocates have pushed for the measure for about two years, Ressler said.

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, who has initiated programs through his office to extend treatment to more people, praised the goals in the speech as “multi-layered and well thought out.”

“I’m excited,” he said. “Hopefully, the governor is committed to it. He’s going to commit his last year of office to saving lives – how can you not endorse that?”

But he also added a dose of reality.

“I want to caution everyone that it’s a good step but the road ahead of us is a long one,” he said. ”You don’t do all this with one shake of the wand in one year.”

Coronato highlighted Christie’s promise to have state Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino issue a rule that limits initial prescriptions for opioids to five days, down from 30.

“That’s a game changer,” Coronato said.

As Christie mentioned in his address, 4 out of 5 heroin addicts started on prescription painkillers

Legislation to limit initial opioid prescriptions has been held up by Assemblyman Herb Conaway as chair of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee. Conaway, a practicing physician, told the Asbury Park Press in September he opposed the measure because it may hurt some patients.

Frank Greenagel, an addiction counselor and former chariman of the New Jersey Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use, said he has seen too many half measures and broken promises from Christie.


“If you weren’t aware of the history you’d say, ‘My God, the man is a visionary. He really wants to make a difference,’" Greenagel said. "But when push comes to shove in going after the pharmaceutical industry or doctors or funding programs, he doesn’t do it.”

Greenagel, who oversaw the recovery housing program at Rutgers for five years as a counselor, pointed to Christie’s goal of bringing more recovery dorms to more colleges. That’s on the back of 2015 legislation that mandated that any college with more than 5,000 students living on campus in New Jersey must provide such housing for students recovering from drug addiction.

The problem with the law is that it had no funding mechanism and gave no guidance to colleges on how to proceed, he said.

And there are more than a dozen schools in New Jersey that the law applies to, he said. The $1 million that Christie said he would send to increase recovery housing stock is too little to have any significant effect, Greenagel said.

"It's not enough to support current programs and certainly not enough to establish new programs," he said.

Greenagel said he’s aware of at least one program that closed its doors for a year because its grant ran out.

The goal of changing prevention curriculum in schools to make it age specific?

“I love that,” Greenagel said. “But it’s something the task force pushed for in 2012. I liked a lot of what I heard, but a lot of it is Johnny-come-lately. He loves taking credit for policies and programs created by people on the front lines or the grass roots level.”

The effort to change the regulations concerning the treatment of 18 and 19 year olds is something that Allison Blake, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, has been pushing for three years, he said.

But Greenagel, a vocal critic of Christie’s efforts against addiction, had praise for one measure: advocating for a law mandating that no one with insurance be denied six months of inpatient or outpatient drug treatment.

“I love the fact that he addressed insurance reform,” Greenagel said.  “Other states have done it. He’s not in the lead. It’s about time. But I’m glad he’s doing it.”

Ward Sanders, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Health Plans, said about the proposal, “New Jersey’s health plans provide coverage for addiction services based on national, evidence-based best practices and look forward to having a thoughtful dialogue on current guidelines.”

Angelo Valente, the executive director of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey who has worked in the drug prevention field for 26 years, praised Christie for the passion behind the address.

“He wants to make fighting addiction the cornerstone of his final year,” he said. “There’s no question this was monumental.”

Christie's proposals included:

  • Setting up what Christie called a “one-stop” web site and hotline for information on addiction treatment: REACHNJ.GOV or 1-844-REACH-NJ.
  • Expanding the Department of Children and Families rules to allow their licensed residential facilities to treat 18-and 19-year olds as children, opening some 200 beds. Christie also pledged $12 million.
  • Tailoring new drug prevention curriculum in schools to students of different ages.
  • Limiting hurdles to create a more flexible environment that encourages Cooperative Sober Living Homes in New Jersey, as proposed by Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex.
  • Directing Attorney General Porrino to use emergency rule-making and other regulatory measures to limit the supply of opioid medications to five days instead of 30.
  • Creating the Facing Addiction Task Force in the private sector chaired by Pastor Joe Carter of The New Hope Baptist Church in Newark and former Gov. Jim McGreevey as well as a new Governor’s Task Force on Drug Abuse Control.
  • Pushing for legislation that mandates that no one with health insurance shall be denied six months of drug abuse treatment.
  • Pledging $1 million for college dorms for students recovering from addictions.