By Declan O’Scanlon
(Editor’s note: This is the original unedited edition of an OpEd published in The Asbury Park Press. “They edited out some good stuff,” O’Scanlon said)
Last month, my brother passed away…..almost exactly 33 years from the day our mother died. He was the same age as my mother when she died, and he died of exactly the same cause – addiction.
Governor Christie’s position that we must treat addiction as something other than a crime, and its victims with compassion rather than scorn, is exactly correct. Addiction – whether you buy the disease designation or not – is for some people a virtually irresistible, destructive force that compels the addict’s cooperation in his own destruction. That concept can be a difficult one to reconcile for those who haven’t had to face it – their own or a family member’s. Unfortunately, that pool of lucky people is dwindling as the heroin epidemic continues to voraciously march through our streets and schools. Alcohol, while not the substance of the moment, continues to take its incessant toll. It’s the substance that took my mom, and my brother.
Alcohol kills slowly. Heroin kills quicker. But they’re both killing our friends and loved ones, and too many of our children.
The cold hard truth is that we as a society must decide that addiction is either more like a bad habit, or more like cancer. Those who argue that we can deny addiction treatment funding and remain a compassionate society buy into the former argument. I don’t deny that the legislation we enacted this week will increase insurance rates. But, just as I wouldn’t argue that a reasonable way to cut rates would be to cease covering cancer treatments, I can’t fail to passionately advocate for funding this public health plague.
On Wednesday, Governor Christie signed into law the strongest drug addiction and treatment reform legislation in the country. New Jersey now requires insurance companies to provide 28 days of treatment without prior authorization. This reform, which Governor Christie boldly called for last month in his State of the State address, will save lives. That is not a guess, not a baseless prediction. It is a guarantee based on first hand experience.
If you are a parent of an addict who is finally ready to get help – after all the nights of horror, and anger and rage, and the broken mirrors and furniture, and the theft of your wife’s wedding ring to sell for the next fix – when you have that brief moment in which they are finally ready for help, it is beyond devastating to get a call from a nameless, faceless bureaucrat telling you that your child’s treatment has been denied or curtailed before it can do any good. Imagine receiving that call knowing the person you love will likely be dead in a few days without help. Until the moment the Governor signed this legislation, the best advice one might give an addict begging for treatment would be to get arrested. Those actually seeking treatment took a back seat to those being forced into it – and least likely to benefit from it.
My brother lived 5 years longer than he would have otherwise by virtue of his receiving treatment. Those were years he had a chance…a chance to hug his children and tell them he loved them, a chance to turn the corner and live 30 more years. Just like so many cancer patients, my brother didn’t turn that corner. He only got a few more years. But his having a shot wasn’t a waste. As the Governor has said, everyone deserves the chance, the hope, the opportunity to get better. The historic law signed this week sends a message to everyone suffering from this affliction – addicts and their families – that their state has not turned its back on them. You are not alone in this struggle. We will keep fighting for you in the long battle against addiction.
We as a compassionate society must agree that it is time to provide our loved ones with the treatment they need. We have to accept the cost to save lives from addiction the same way we accept the cost to save lives from cancer.
The other aspect of the reform law signed by Governor Christie is the reduction in the number of days doctors can initially prescribe opioids.
We have all had doctors hand us a prescription after a minor procedure for far-too-big-a-supply of a far-to-powerful opioid. Thirty days worth of an addictive prescription for a wisdom tooth removal is asking for trouble, both for the patient and for the patient’s children who might come across leftover pills. The 5 day limit on initial prescriptions is perfectly reasonable given that CDC guidelines suggest 3 days is usually sufficient.
The prescription limitation and in-patinent treatment mandate are dramatic new weapons in our fight against this epidemic. But dramatic action is what’s called for when you’re losing a life and death battle. In fact there is no more appropriate time for such action. Those lucky enough not to have been touched by this scourge might resent the cost associated with this legislation. They will resent it until their wife or mother or son or daughter…or brother is the one dying before their eyes. Until then they can protest and complain. And I can be envious of their lucky world. But I have an obligation to prepare the real one to be compassionate when their time comes.
Governor Christie changed the dialogue on addiction by espousing compassion and treatment over scorn and incarceration. His efforts to expand drug courts, strengthen prescription monitoring, and encourage proper disposal of unused medications were the first steps in this long journey. The new law signed on Wednesday was a bipartisan effort of Republican and Democratic officials to act swiftly on the suggestions of former addicts who are now living productive and successful lives in recovery. And about time.
Declan O’Scanlon represents the 13th legislative district (northern Monmouth County) in the New Jersey General Assembly. He is a candidate for the GOP nomination for State Senate in the district.