Monday, January 30, 2017

State of the State Address Offers Hope for Addiction Recovery

My name is Mariel Hufnagel. 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 formerly incarcerated convicted felon, formerly homeless and a sex trafficking survivor. I battled with alcohol and drug addiction, bipolar disorder and bulimia nervosa for most of my teenage years – 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 and those who have lost their battle and those in recovery – I have immersed myself wholeheartedly in mental health, addiction and criminal justice reform advocacy.  I believe in health equity and a person-centered system of care.  I am employed full-time as an Advocacy Organizer with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence – New Jersey (NCADD-NJ), where we run a statewide Advocacy Leadership Program.

The NCADD-NJ Advocacy Leadership Program started in 2008 and is a network of volunteer advocates, invested in promoting addiction as a public health issue. Our advocates are organized regionally throughout the state, working locally in their communities to educate and bring awareness to the public and decision makers surrounding addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support services. We believe that Electoral Politics, Public Policy, and Grassroots Community Organizing must be woven together in order to create social change. When these elements are working in harmony we can sustain change over the long haul with the help of developing a critical mass of diverse leaders in every community in New Jersey.

On January 10, 2017 something colossal occurred. Our Governor dedicated the majority of his State of the State Address to addiction. As a New Jersey resident, voter, and advocate I am overwhelmed and hopeful. Many of the things that Governor Chris Christie spoke of during his address are issues and solutions which NCADD-NJ Advocates have relentlessly fought for since 2010. 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 but a process that clearly can lead to results.

During Christie’s speech, he covered the importance of a robust continuum of care, speaking about improving prevention, treatment and recovery support services. Some of his major points were:
  • ·         The absolute need for evidence-based practices for prevention
  • ·         Monitoring and curtailing the overprescribing of narcotic pain medication
  • ·         The horrendous lack of beds available and the need of treatment on demand
  • ·         Insurance companies, medical necessity and behavioral health insurance equality
  • ·         Recovery housing for those in early recovery and those attending college
  • ·         NIMBY (“not in my backyard” mentality)

He clearly addressed how untreated addiction is not only killing people, ruining lives and tearing families apart – but he spoke about the fiscal impact of untreated addiction, and the way it touches all other areas - the criminal justice, education, healthcare systems and so much more. New data shows the number of heroin and opiate-related deaths in New Jersey only continues to skyrocket, and is currently at more than twice the national average. In my opinion, the one thing that Christie missed in his speech was talking about the vital need for Peer-to-Peer recovery centers in this 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, thus reducing relapse rates and in turn stemming the tide of addiction. Without this vital piece of the puzzle we will never reach our desired outcomes.
Only 13 days after his address, Christie has already drafted and delivered proposed legislation. This to me speaks very loudly about his delivery. As noted on the Governor’s website, the proposed legislation is very aggressive and carries multiple provisions, including but not limited to:

•    “No one will be turned away for insurance reasons from treatment if a licensed provider prescribes substance abuse disorder treatment.
•    Insurance coverage for treatment of a substance abuse disorder will be required and any waiting period that could derail a person’s recovery will be eliminated.
•    No longer will lives be put at risk by layers of needless bureaucracy; 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 carrier.
•    Covered medication-assisted treatments will be required to be provided without the imposition of prior approval from a 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.
•    In addition, treatment for substance use disorders must be covered by the carrier to the same extent as any other covered medical condition without increased copayments, deductibles or co-insurance.
•    The Office of 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 this speech and this new draft legislation, we can see a way to save lives through Public Policy that provides vision, direction and an agenda; Electoral Politics which determines who makes decisions and holds them accountable; and Grassroots Community Organizing which builds a constituency that fights for change. 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.

I think what Christie has proposed is a tall-order and I fear that during his last term, due to bureaucracy (not intention), that he simply may not be able to accomplish it all. This means that New Jerseyans must pay attention to the upcoming gubernatorial election, and ensure that our next Governor is equally as vested in this. 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 is 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 Mead

View the full State of the State Address here: