'Our children are dying': Christie vows to fight addiction

Christie State Of The State
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, arrives in the Assembly chamber of the Statehouse to deliver his State Of The State address Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON - Gov. Christie vowed Tuesday to devote his final year in office to battling drug addiction, skirting other challenges confronting New Jersey as he delivered an unusual and impassioned State of the State address focused almost exclusively on the issue.

Telling personal stories of people affected by addiction - a state employee whose son died from a heroin overdose two days after she celebrated his sobriety at a Statehouse vigil; the son of a state Supreme Court justice, now in recovery and opening a treatment center - Christie said he hoped to make New Jersey an example for the nation on drug recovery.

"That mission is my mission over the next 373 days as governor," he said.

Christie begins his last year with the lowest approval ratings of his seven-year tenure, following a failed presidential bid and the conviction of two former allies in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. Pollsters say the public has soured on a governor perceived to be focused on national ambitions.

Christie opened his speech Tuesday by saying his service to New Jersey had been "my central responsibility every day of my life for the last 15 years," including his time as U.S. attorney.

And "every day of my governorship," he said, he has been committed to combating addiction.

In his speech, Christie asked legislative leaders to pass a bill within 30 days that would "mandate that no citizen with health insurance can be denied coverage for the first six months of inpatient or outpatient drug-rehabilitation treatment" - a proposal that could remove barriers to treatment, but also increase insurance costs, according to an analyst.

"I'm going to do everything I can to try to meet" Christie's proposed deadline, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "It's the right thing to do."

Christie "picked a great issue that touches everybody's life in this state," Sweeney said at a news conference after the governor's address. "When he gave that speech about Justice [Lee] Solomon's son - I know that family. And that's a good family. And if it can happen to someone in that family, it can happen to any one of us."

Sweeney also said that besides addiction, "we need conversations on a whole host of other issues."

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) also said the drug issue was one "we can all stand behind" but disputed Christie's assessment of the state's condition.

"Are we off better than we were seven years ago?" he asked, declaring the middle and working classes have been "buried" by the Christie administration.

Democratic lawmakers said they expected Christie to talk about more state issues in his budget address next month.

Christie said Tuesday that he wanted to limit health providers from prescribing more than five days' worth of opioid painkillers up front to patients with acute pain.

He also called for expanding access to treatment, including by changing state rules to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be treated as children in the drug-treatment system.

And he pledged a new public relations campaign, promoting a state website and hotline to direct people to resources, and instituting a school curriculum on opioids that would start with kindergartners.

"Our friends are dying. Our neighbors are dying. Our coworkers are dying. Our children are dying. Every day," Christie said. "In numbers we can no longer afford to ignore."

While the state recorded a 22 percent increase in overdose deaths last year, Christie said the number would have been higher were it not for state efforts to increase the availability of naloxone.

"I know this is a very different State of the State address," he said. "But when our children are dying, New Jersey should be offended if I came up here and gave a typical political laundry-list speech."

With Christie's political capital diminished, other issues may be too complicated to tackle in his final year, said Patrick Murray, political analyst at Monmouth University. He noted that cost-of-living - the top issue for many New Jerseyans - was little addressed.

"It's a great speech for an issue you really care about - knowing that all other political routes have been closed off to you," Murray said.

Before turning to his addiction proposals, Christie touted tax cuts passed last year, including a 3/8 percentage point drop in the sales tax and two-year phaseout of the estate tax. Those cuts were part of the deal to increase the gas tax.

The governor also briefly addressed the chronically underfunded state pension system, promoting record contributions made during his tenure, but also acknowledging that "we have not been able to pay every penny we had hoped to" after promising in 2011 to ramp up payments.

While he didn't weigh in on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Christie touched on the issue as he noted that his decision to expand Medicaid in New Jersey had "created a sea change" in the availability of drug treatment for the poor. Like Republicans in Washington, Christie supports a repeal of President Obama's health-care law.

Repealing the law would undercut Christie's plans, said Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst with the left-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective.

"Unless the Medicaid expansion is maintained, key features of the governor's proposals will simply not be possible," Castro said in a statement.

Other questions surrounded the governor's call for a law mandating that no citizen with insurance could be denied coverage for the first six months of drug treatment. Joel Cantor, founding director of the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University, said it would be "extremely unusual for a state to require insurance companies to cover any benefit that could potentially be not medically necessary."

"The details will matter," he said.

The New Jersey Association of Health Plans, a nonprofit representing leading commercial and Medicaid health care plans in the state, said in a statement that "we agree with Gov. Christie that more can be done to curb the tragic growth in opioid addiction."

mhanna@phillynews.com

856-779-3232 @maddiehanna

www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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