Working to Combat the Opioid Abuse Epidemic

The opioid abuse epidemic facing our state is nothing short of a public health crisis. Heroin-related overdose deaths in New Jersey almost tripled from 2010 to 2014. In 2014, heroin claimed 781 lives. The increase in heroin use is not unique to our state and – both here and across the nation – elected leaders are taking action to combat this epidemic.

In fact, last weekend, the National Governor’s Association made opiate abuse prevention a focus of its winter meeting and announced it will work through various means to try to address what has become a national crisis. In a statement, the NGA called on governors, physicians, state legislatures and other stakeholders to join together in this cause.

There is no doubt that this issue must be addressed at the national and state level, and from various angles.

Here in New Jersey, we have recognized the need and are taking action. Spearheaded by my colleague Senator Joseph Vitale, the Senate Health Committee Chairman, we launched an effort aimed at fighting this epidemic through prevention, education, treatment, and recovery. And we’ve made progress.

We advanced more than a dozen bills in the Senate, many of which are now law, including legislation that I authored with Senator Vitale to address the opioid abuse epidemic at its source: Prescription medications that all too often end up in patients’ medicine cabinets.

Doctors are now required to consult the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), a statewide database that links to a number of neighboring states, the first time they prescribe a medication of an addictive nature to a patient for acute and chronic pain, and at least quarterly for patients that continue to receive prescriptions for this type of medication. Pharmacists will also utilize the database to protect against abuse.

Before this law was enacted, many doctors were enrolled to use the program, but that did not mean they were regularly checking the database before prescribing an opiate. So, strengthening the program was critical to ensuring it is effective.

In a statement, the National Governor’s Association called the use of prescription drug monitoring programs “a powerful tool to identify potential signs of opioid abuse, enhance patient care, improve prescribing practices and signal when a patient may need treatment for a substance use disorder.”

We know there is more to do, particularly to protect young people from succumbing to the devastating, and often, tragic disease of addiction. And we have to be proactive. We have to make sure that parents and children understand the addictive nature of medications and are given the opportunity to decide on an alternative treatment, before a drug is prescribed and also over the course of treatment. I am sponsoring two bills to promote this effort.

And we will do more. We have seen the loss of thousands of lives in New Jersey over nearly a decade, and we are committed in the Legislature to ending the loss and pain that so many families have experienced.

We also look forward to continued efforts at the national level, and to working collaboratively with stakeholders and other states. Addressing the opiate epidemic is a significant challenge – but it’s a challenge that we must meet through our continued efforts, together.

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