By Vin Gopal, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey
Opioid addiction hurts all of us. It takes the lives of friends, devastates families, stresses medical resources and costs millions in tax dollars every year.
Health experts say the COVID-19 public health crisis has significantly worsened the problem, causing depression and feelings of isolation that drive too many people to seek the perceived escape of opioids. Through November 30 of last year, the state reported 2,791 suspected drug overdose deaths, including at least 170 Monmouth County residents, according to the New Jersey Department of Health’s Opioid Data Dashboard.
These numbers are tragic and unacceptable.
That’s why we’ve introduced and sponsored legislation that has progressed through the state legislature in January to provide health and medical professionals with better tools for preventing and treating the sickness of opioid addiction. We are trying to address the opioid crisis at each level, from the initial prescription, to the occurrence of an overdose and treatment of the addiction.
We sponsored a bill, A-1589, to revise how opioids are prescribed by calling for immediate-release opioid drugs for acute pain to be given for the shortest period of time possible. The bill also requires health professionals to consider using non-opioid medications such as nerve-blocking and other non-addictive treatments before prescribing opioids.
The Senate passed another of our bills, S-2323, last week to require that opioid prescriptions be accompanied by a prescription for an opioid antidote when a patient has a history of substance use or is taking a daily dose of the opioid greater than a 90 milligram morphine equivalent. We also introduced S-3400 last week to allow emergency medical responders to dispense opioid antidotes.
In addition, the state Assembly and Senate have approved our bill, A-2280 / S-1763, to make fees and commissions paid in exchange for referring people to a substance abuse facility illegal. The bill would help ensure that people who are fighting addiction are being referred to the facilities best suited to help them. Under the bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, exchanging referrals for fees would be a fourth-degree crime. A person who knowingly assists, conspires with, or urges anyone to violate the ban would face up to 18 months in jail, a $10,000 fine, or both.
Our bills, A-4179 / S-2559, to revise the requirements for health insurance providers, Medicaid, NJ FamilyCare, the State Health Benefits Program (SHBP) and School Employees’ Health Benefits Program (SEHBP) to provide expanded coverage for services using telemedicine and telehealth would also help. It would increase access to medical professionals through video or phone therapy sessions and counseling.
We also introduced legislation, A-998, in January to establish a social innovation loan guarantee pilot program and study commission on opioid and other substance use disorders. The loan guarantee would be provided through the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Financing Authority (HCFFA). The five-year social innovation loan guarantee would encourage private investment in health care services for treating and preventing opioid addiction and lower public expenditures related to those services.
HCFFA would work with lenders, eligible nonprofit organizations, and public sector entities to provide direct funding from a lender. Loan payments would be set in an amount proportional to the savings generated by providing treatment and prevention services. If the anticipated savings are not achieved, HCFFA would guarantee the lender is repaid.
Addiction hurts all of us. But by taking a comprehensive approach to prevention and treatment, we will get through this crisis together.