Christie Announces $100M Plan to Convert Prison Into Heroin Rehab, Increase Treatment Reimbursement Rates

New Jersey's death rates from heroin are 3 times the national average, which have already quadrupled in the past decade. Chris Christie has won praise for his approach to drug addiction while campaigning for president.

Hours before the heroin crisis reached the second paragraph of the State of the Union, a contender to be the next president unveiled a $100 million plan to confront the epidemic at home.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has supported drug treatment since his days as a county official, yesterday used his annual State of the State message to outline how he will use new funds for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Calling it “fiscally responsible” and “morally right,” Christie said his plan would raise abysmally low reimbursement rates that keep the poor from getting care.

Christie also wants to recycle the shuttered Mid-State Correctional facility at Fort Dix as a treatment center for prisoners with drug problems. This will address 2 major challenges: a shortage of treatment beds, and the extreme difficulty in locating facilities in 1 of the nation’s most densely populated states. Almost every attempt to open an overnight treatment center is met with protest, as residents fear drug abusers and lower property values.

Yet, the irony is that heroin is everywhere in New Jersey, as poignantly portrayed last month in the series by NJ Advance Media, the state’s leading news outlet. An examination of data from the past decade showed that at least 128,000 people are addicted to heroin—enough to make up the fourth-largest city—and more than 5200 people have died.

As much as the nation’s opioid and heroin death rates have soared, with CDC figures showing death rates nearly quadrupling in the past decade, New Jersey’s rates are triple the national average. Experts attribute the state’s outsize addiction rate to its location, near international ports, and its dense network of highways that make drug transport easy.

While the prison conversion creates a tangible asset in the war on heroin, raising reimbursement rates from the current $68 per day would likely have a more immediate and meaningful impact on New Jersey’s ability to treat its Medicaid population.

“As demand for services continues to grow, we also need to widen access,” Christie said. “Increased reimbursement rates will help improve critical services and provide more treatment capacity. The investment we’re making will change lives and get more people into treatment earlier, instead of the emergency room or prison later.”

Christie has recounted the loss of a close law school friend to drug addiction during town hall meetings as he campaigns for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. A YouTube video of one such encounter caused him to surge in the polls in New Hampshire, where residents have asked candidates how they would deal with heroin addiction.

Other Mental Health Initiatives, Help for ACOs

In his address yesterday, Christie listed other items related to mental health:

“We’ve already trained 2500 first responders in 9 counties on how to recognize and deal with difficult situations, so they can decide whether it makes more sense to direct someone for treatment. Now we’ll pay to train more,” he said. “Another way to prove we believe every life is precious.”

He also announced plans to extend funding for 3 regional accountable care organizations (ACOs), which have been functioning under a program coordinated through Rutgers University to study how patients with the most serious chronic conditions drive up costs. “Within the top 1% of the most expensive Medicaid patients, more than 86% have a mental illness, substance abuse issue, or both.

“If we can help get people access to coordinated care for their physical conditions, mental health and addiction issues, we can deliver more effective treatment and lower the long-term cost to the state.”

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