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Mariel Hufnagel: The State of Governor Christie

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~ by Mariel Hufnagel

On January 10th, 2017, something colossal and completely unprecedented occurred. A governor dedicated the majority of this State of the State Address to talk about addiction. This governor happened to my governor, Governor Chris Christie.

As a New Jersey resident, voter, and advocate I am feel overwhelmed and, yet hopeful. There is a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that our voices are being heard and that we have become a constituency of consequence. Patience, relentless advocacy and training, stigma reduction, and working with community decision-makers is a process, one that clearly can lead to successful results.

You see, I am one of those recovery success stories.

I am a certified yoga teacher and a competitive runner; I love sushi; and during my spare time can be found traveling, meditating, on the beach, drinking black coffee or laughing and snuggling with my amazing husband Anthony. I am also a previously incarcerated convicted felon. I’ve been homeless and am a sex trafficking survivor.

I battled with alcohol and drug addiction, bipolar disorder and bulimia nervosa for most of my teenage years. I entered recovery in May 2007 at the age of 21 and have maintained abstinence-based, long-term recovery ever since.

Since 2012, in an effort to face addiction, as well as demand the social rights of those who suffer–those who have lost their battle and those in recovery–I have immersed myself in mental health, addiction and criminal justice reform advocacy. I believe in health equity and a person-centered system of care.

During Christie’s speech, he covered the importance of a robust continuum of care and about the critical need for improving prevention, treatment and recovery support services. He clearly addressed how untreated addiction is not only killing people, ruining lives and tearing families apart, it also has a tremendous fiscal impact and touches all so many other areas, like the criminal justice system, the education system, and the healthcare system.

New data shows the number of heroin and opiate-related deaths in New Jersey continues to skyrocket, and is currently at more than twice the national average. The Christie Administration reports a 30 percent increase in heroin deaths in the last year.

The one thing that Christie missed in his speech was talking about the vital need for peer-to-peer recovery centers in the continuum of care. Recovery centers provide a safe, healthy, educational and fun environment for people in recovery to grow and thrive – which increases one’s ability to maintain and sustain long-term recovery, reducing relapse rates and in turn stemming the tide of addiction. Without this vital piece of the puzzle, I believe we will continue to see high relapse rates.

Since Governor Christie’s speech

Less than two weeks after his address, Christie has already drafted and delivered proposed legislation that is very aggressive and carries multiple provisions, including:

  • No one will be turned away for insurance reasons from treatment if a licensed provider prescribes substance use disorder treatment.
  • Insurance coverage for treatment of a substance use disorder will be required and any waiting period that could derail a person’s recovery will be eliminated.
  • People diagnosed with a substance use disorder will have covered treatment for 180 days, starting the day they need it, including long-term, out-patient treatment with no interference from their insurance carrier.
  • Covered medication-assisted treatments will be required without the imposition of prior approval from an insurance carrier.
  • Onerous pre-payment obligations imposed by providers will be prohibited, and instead, patients will only be required to pay their copayment, deductible or co-insurance for their treatment.
  • Treatment for substance use disorders must be covered by the insurance carrier to the same extent as any other covered medical condition without increased copayments, deductibles or co-insurance.
  • The Office of the Attorney General will be tasked with monitoring this system to prevent waste, fraud or abuse, and to ensure providers are not improperly treating patients or filling beds that could be used by others in need of treatment.

With Governor Christie’s speech and draft legislation, we can see a way to save countless lives in my state. Although we have a long way to go, New Jersey is ahead of the curve and on the cusp of truly changing the way that addiction is viewed and treated.

But our governor’s efforts need help. New Jerseyans must pay attention to the upcoming gubernatorial election, and ensure that our next governor is as equally vested in the addiction recovery movement as Christie.

Now more than ever, we need people to stand up and speak out about addiction–humanizing it and breaking stigma–while simultaneously demanding that it be treated as a health condition.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Meade

–Mariel Hufnagel is an Advocacy Organizer with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence – New Jersey (NCADD-NJ). NCADD-NJ is a Facing Addiction Action Network partner.

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