Christie could sign two more anti-addiction bills before his term ends – NorthJersey.com

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According to a new government study, rising death rates from opioid abuse are lowering Americans’ life spans. NorthJersey.com

Chris Christie’s final act as governor to cement his image as an anti-addiction crusader could be his signing a pair of bills that would close loopholes in the state’s prescription drug monitoring database and standardize the testing and reporting of drug overdose deaths by medical examiners, among several other changes.

Christie’s office declined to comment on the measures, but the sponsor of legislation, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said he expects them to move through the Legislature and be signed by the governor before his second and final term expires Jan. 16.

“The governor’s committed to signing these, so we’ll see,” Vitale said Thursday ahead of a Senate health committee hearing at which the bills are expected to be discussed and approved.

The measures, which are opposed in part by nearly a dozen medical associations, would implement a series of recommendations produced by a substance abuse task force Christie authorized earlier this year at the same time he declared opioid use a public health crisis in New Jersey.

They would build on a sweeping piece of legislation Christie signed in February that mandates insurance coverage for up to six months of substance abuse treatment, imposes the nation’s strictest limit on initial opioid drug prescriptions and requires education for patients and doctors about the risks associated with the drugs.

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Under current law, many doctors and pharmacists have to the check the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program any time they prescribe or dispense an opioid for acute or chronic pain. The database is linked with 12 other states and helps identify patients who may be abusing or diverting the painkillers.

The first bill, S-3604, would end an exception to that requirement for emergency room doctors writing a prescription for five days or less and permit emergency rooms to integrate the prescription monitoring database into their electronic medical record systems.

States that have allowed that type of integration have seen a 25 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in emergency departments after one year, Dr. Marjory Langer, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, wrote in favorable testimony to be submitted to lawmakers Thursday.

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The bill would also add a requirement that doctors and pharmacists check the prescription monitoring program any time they prescribe or dispense a controlled benzodiazepine drug, such as Xanax or Valium, and would expand the type of health care professionals required to receive continuing education on prescription opioids to include veterinarians, pharmacists, nurses, athletic trainers and others.

The second bill, S-3605, would standardize the testing and reporting of drug overdose deaths by county medical examiners.

Christie’s task force on substance abuse emphasized that the accurate and timely reporting of overdose deaths is “vitally important” to understanding and combating the opioid epidemic but said that many medical examiners offices around the state are underfunded, understaffed and operate under different rules and procedures.

NJ.com published an investigation Thursday that found widespread dysfunction in New Jersey’s medical examiner system. Vitale said the report “underscores the need for my legislation but also underscores the need to look even further into additional reform changes.”

Pain patients as “collateral damage”

In a letter to be submitted to Vitale and other lawmakers Thursday, a group of 11 associations representing doctors, including the Medical Society of New Jersey, warned that patients with legitimate pain have become “collateral damage” in the ongoing state crackdown on opioid use.

“We are successfully reducing initial exposure to opioids,” the group wrote. “And, we are starting to successfully address addiction treatment needs and parity gaps. But, the patients who are already dependent on pain medications are struggling to maintain access to medication and quality of life.”

The group said that “the real solution to reducing opioids” is “to adequately make alternatives available” — another recommendation of the governor’s task force but not one incorporated into Vitale’s bills. Health insurers, they said, need to cover non-opioid therapies and drugs that are central to medication-assisted treatment.

“Adding mandates to the [Prescription Monitoring Program] law or even opioid limits do nothing for patients who have no other alternatives,” the group wrote.

The group also said that the state is disciplining physicians so aggressively — without giving them ways to report abuse or refer patients to substance abuse treatment — that many doctors are scared to write opioid prescriptions at all.

“Neither reporting suspicious activity nor referring patients to treatment are easy, leaving only the option of cutting patients off from treatment,” they wrote.

Email: pugliese@northjersey.com

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