Pubdate: Thu, 12 Jan 2017
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2017 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Maddie Hanna


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, arrives in the Assembly chamber of
the Statehouse to deliver his State Of The State address Tuesday, Jan. 10,
2017, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON - Gov. Christie vowed Tuesday to devote his final year in office
to battling drug addiction, skirting other challenges confronting New
Jersey as he delivered an unusual and impassioned State of the State
address focused almost exclusively on the issue.

Telling personal stories of people affected by addiction - a state
employee whose son died from a heroin overdose two days after she
celebrated his sobriety at a Statehouse vigil; the son of a state Supreme
Court justice, now in recovery and opening a treatment center - Christie
said he hoped to make New Jersey an example for the nation on drug

"That mission is my mission over the next 373 days as governor," he said.

Christie begins his last year with the lowest approval ratings of his
seven-year tenure, following a failed presidential bid and the conviction
of two former allies in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
Pollsters say the public has soured on a governor perceived to be focused
on national ambitions.

Christie opened his speech Tuesday by saying his service to New Jersey had
been "my central responsibility every day of my life for the last 15
years," including his time as U.S. attorney.

And "every day of my governorship," he said, he has been committed to
combating addiction.

In his speech, Christie asked legislative leaders to pass a bill within 30
days that would "mandate that no citizen with health insurance can be
denied coverage for the first six months of inpatient or outpatient
drug-rehabilitation treatment" - a proposal that could remove barriers to
treatment, but also increase insurance costs, according to an analyst.

"I'm going to do everything I can to try to meet" Christie's proposed
deadline, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "It's
the right thing to do."

Christie "picked a great issue that touches everybody's life in this
state," Sweeney said at a news conference after the governor's address.
"When he gave that speech about Justice [Lee] Solomon's son - I know that
family. And that's a good family. And if it can happen to someone in that
family, it can happen to any one of us."

Sweeney also said that besides addiction, "we need conversations on a
whole host of other issues."

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) also said the drug issue was
one "we can all stand behind" but disputed Christie's assessment of the
state's condition.

"Are we off better than we were seven years ago?" he asked, declaring the
middle and working classes have been "buried" by the Christie

Democratic lawmakers said they expected Christie to talk about more state
issues in his budget address next month.

Christie said Tuesday that he wanted to limit health providers from
prescribing more than five days' worth of opioid painkillers up front to
patients with acute pain.

He also called for expanding access to treatment, including by changing
state rules to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be treated as children in the
drug-treatment system.

And he pledged a new public relations campaign, promoting a state website
and hotline to direct people to resources, and instituting a school
curriculum on opioids that would start with kindergartners.

"Our friends are dying. Our neighbors are dying. Our coworkers are dying.
Our children are dying. Every day," Christie said. "In numbers we can no
longer afford to ignore."

While the state recorded a 22 percent increase in overdose deaths last
year, Christie said the number would have been higher were it not for
state efforts to increase the availability of naloxone.

"I know this is a very different State of the State address," he said.
"But when our children are dying, New Jersey should be offended if I came
up here and gave a typical political laundry-list speech."

With Christie's political capital diminished, other issues may be too
complicated to tackle in his final year, said Patrick Murray, political
analyst at Monmouth University. He noted that cost-of-living - the top
issue for many New Jerseyans - was little addressed.

"It's a great speech for an issue you really care about - knowing that all
other political routes have been closed off to you," Murray said.

Before turning to his addiction proposals, Christie touted tax cuts passed
last year, including a 3/8 percentage point drop in the sales tax and
two-year phaseout of the estate tax. Those cuts were part of the deal to
increase the gas tax.

The governor also briefly addressed the chronically underfunded state
pension system, promoting record contributions made during his tenure, but
also acknowledging that "we have not been able to pay every penny we had
hoped to" after promising in 2011 to ramp up payments.

While he didn't weigh in on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Christie
touched on the issue as he noted that his decision to expand Medicaid in
New Jersey had "created a sea change" in the availability of drug
treatment for the poor. Like Republicans in Washington, Christie supports
a repeal of President Obama's health-care law.

Repealing the law would undercut Christie's plans, said Raymond Castro,
senior policy analyst with the left-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective.

"Unless the Medicaid expansion is maintained, key features of the
governor's proposals will simply not be possible," Castro said in a

Other questions surrounded the governor's call for a law mandating that no
citizen with insurance could be denied coverage for the first six months
of drug treatment. Joel Cantor, founding director of the Center for State
Health Policy at Rutgers University, said it would be "extremely unusual
for a state to require insurance companies to cover any benefit that could
potentially be not medically necessary."

"The details will matter," he said.

The New Jersey Association of Health Plans, a nonprofit representing
leading commercial and Medicaid health care plans in the state, said in a
statement that "we agree with Gov. Christie that more can be done to curb
the tragic growth in opioid addiction."
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