New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said the opioid crisis will be his primary focus before he leaves office in January. In his final state-of-the-state address, Christie called that crisis “one that is ripping the very fabric of our state.” He provided some grim statistics. “Drug overdose deaths escalated by nearly 22 percent in New Jersey between the year 2014 and 2015, largely due to opioids. There was a 30 percent increase in heroin deaths over the previous year, and triple the number of deaths caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has up to 50 times the potency of heroin.” “People addicted to opioids and other substances can be found everywhere in the state,” confirms Mandy Koblischek, who represents Lakeview Health in New Jersey. “It’s in the suburbs and the inner cities. It doesn’t discriminate, and it’s killing a whole generation right now.” Christie wants to make the fight against addiction more efficient by transferring the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) from its current home in the state’s Department of Human Services to the health department. The DMHAS is responsible for overseeing statewide mental health and addiction services, state aid funding, four state psychiatric hospitals, contracts with provider agencies and criminal justice system addiction treatment services, among others.
According to the health department’s communications director, Donna Leusner, “the reorganization will provide increased efficiency, coordination, and integration of mental health and addiction prevention and treatment services within the Department of Health.” But some advocates and lawmakers who oversee health and human services programs fear the shift could result in chaos at critical programs for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Governor Christie submitted the reorganization plan at the end of June for state legislators to consider and vote on within 60 days. The state General Assembly voted to block Christie’s plan in August after hearing concerns from experts who said that a shift, while agencies were already going through a major transition from a contract-based payment system to a fee-for-service system, was not ideal. The Senate did not vote on the plan before the governor’s deadline, though, and state officials are now going ahead with the transition. In addition, New Jersey’s Department of Health is hosting town hall meetings in each of the 21 counties this fall to get feedback from mental health officials, consumers, community members and others on the reform plans. The two-hour town halls will serve as a forum for people to discuss and ask questions about how the state can best handle the transfer of the DMHAS and how to support people in New Jersey suffering from substance use disorders. State health officials said the first step is to establish a new structure by December for how division services will operate within the health department after they are moved out of the Department of Human Services. “Opioid addiction is a public health crisis and we must take aggressive action to get this crisis under control and save lives,” Christie said earlier this year. Whether moving the DMHAS to a different department is the right move at the right time to achieve that goal remains to be seen.