Health officials and advocates held a panel discussion on Sept. 12 at Garden Heights, a new addiction treatment center in Journal Square, to discuss local impacts of the national opioid addiction crisis.
Deaths attributed to opioids have reached record-breaking numbers in the state since reliable data became available in 2014. Opioid addiction is more severe per-capita in New Jersey than other states. The rate of heroin overdose is three times greater than the national average.
Over the past decade, law enforcement agencies, local and state legislators, and advocacy groups have tried to address the crisis of surging addiction rates in New Jersey. Overdose deaths for the first half of 2019 indicate that this year’s death toll might decrease from the 3,118 suspected overdose deaths in 2018.
Still, if the rate from January to June remains stable, the rate of fatal overdoses in New Jersey will be more than double what it was in 2014.
The discussion in Jersey City focused on what’s working in Hudson County, what isn’t, and what actions need to be taken.
The panelists included Robin F. James of the Hudson County Department of Health and Human Services; Stacey Flanagan of Jersey City’s Health and Human Services, and Jersey City Employment Training Program; William Perkins, CEO of TARP (Training Addiction and Recovery Professionals); and Bill Lillis, CPS and member of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.
A place to go
The panel reached a unanimous consensus about the need to expand residential treatment programs, affordable housing, and shelter.
Often, there is a short window of time to secure housing or a bed once addicts decide they want treatment, before they change their minds, or have a health emergency, Lillis said.
“I knew of a mother who had a kid ready for treatment,” Lillis said. “She couldn’t find a bed right away, and [her child] ended up dying before a bed was found. You simply cannot know when a person’s window for recovery is open. It might be open for just an hour, and if that bed is not open, it can be fatal for that person.”
Flanagan said that Jersey City’s residential treatment services are inadequate compared to other areas. Those who are homeless are turned away from shelters if they show signs of or admit to substance abuse.
“Residential treatment is not an option for a lot of people here,” Flanagan said. “We hope to do progressive work with our affordable housing trust fund. We know there are chronic users that need to be connected to services right where they are. We have partnerships with United Way and Habitat for Humanity, and we need to retrofit certain areas because there’s little space left to be built out.”
Dearth of providers
In most of the county, it’s difficult to connect to a healthcare provider compared to other regions of the state, panelists said. For every mental health care provider, there are about 2,200 Jersey City residents who need one.
“There’s a limited number of professionals here,” Flanagan said. “When traffic and transportation are difficult, and Jersey City’s employment assistance provider is in Bayonne, services clearly aren’t accessible to everyone who needs them. We need to engage with our hospitals to find ways to incentivize more mental health professionals to come and do business here.”
Perkins agreed with others that there should be an end to waiting lists. Any time spent on a waiting list due to a lack of providers could prove fatal for those suffering from addiction.
People need options
Panelists said there are government programs as well as nonprofits, and public-private partnerships. Funding exists for some programs, but not others.
There should be programs for those who interact with addicts, advocates said. Lillis called for programs to educate employers and schools on mental health and substance abuse.
“The drug-free workplace program we run aims to help businesses establish programs and policies for prevention, but employers also need to understand that this is a disease, and people do recover,” Lillis said. “A big piece of the puzzle in recovery involves being able to return to a job to fulfill one’s financial needs.”
James said that county family education programs are slated for expansion.
Flanagan said that with the city’s Employment Training Program, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other departments, what works for Jersey City is a well-connected public-private network of diverse service personnel.
“No one group can do this alone,” Flanagan said. “People in this town literally write letters to the mayor saying ‘My kid is an addict and I need help,’ and pooling resources is important.”
Panelists addressed how alternative interventions, focused on wellness, nutrition, and other forms of holistic therapy, could be introduced by community leaders. Since the state doesn’t fund alternative forms of treatment, community-based partnerships are key.
“Obviously, if you feel healthy and better, you’re going to be less likely to do drugs, but alternative treatment slides under the rug,” Perkins said. “It’s not often a billable service for insurance, so it largely has to be done through partnerships.”
The time is right
Pharmaceutical companies that produced many of the opioids directly tied to overdose deaths throughout the country are facing multi-state lawsuits. The state and Hudson County will likely get settlement dollars soon.
Purdue Pharma, producers of OxyContin, recently filed for bankruptcy as part of a $10 billion settlement, which will go toward “addressing the opioid crisis,” at the discretion of state, county, and local governments who were plaintiffs in the case.
In a landmark ruling, Johnson & Johnson paid out $572 million to the state of Oklahoma, which blamed the New Brunswick-based manufacturer for its involvement in claiming the lives of more than 6,000 people in the state.
Johnson & Johnson said it was going to appeal the settlement.
Local officials are concerned that a huge wave of settlement funding, which seems inevitable now that precedent has been set, will be misappropriated.
“Look at some of the mistakes that were made back in ’98 when all that money came in from the tobacco industry,” Lillis said.
In 1998, during the single largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history, tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to state governments, but states have slowly shifted the dollars away from tobacco education programs. Some states spend a single-digit percentage of the revenue on anti-tobacco education.
“The money we get needs to be targeted, and it needs to be shovel-ready,” Lillis said. “The idea that it could be misappropriated is unconscionable.”
Flanagan said that the state has fallen short in apportioning for education and prevention in the past, in favor of the more immediate, pharmaceutical solutions such as Narcan or methadone. For the long haul, counselors are needed. There is no longer free training for counseling certification.
“If all we do is give out Narcan, we won’t get to the real meat of the issue,” Flanagan said.