Health & Wellness

U.S. Senators Host Local Forum with U.S. Surgeon General on Heroin and Opioid Crisis in New Jersey

RWJBarnabas Health's John Bonamo, SBMC's Steve Zieniewicz, Sen. Booker, Dr. Murthy, Sen. Menendez, Dr. Shulkin, Angelo Valente from Drug Free NJ
Livingston Mayor Al Anthony with Dr. Murphy Credits: Al Anthony

LIVINGSTON, NJ – With heroin deaths in New Jersey up 160 percent since 2010 and more than 1,200 overdose-related deaths last year alone, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker hosted U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Monday at Saint Barnabas Medical Center for a forum on tackling the heroin and opioid-addiction crisis plaguing the nation.

Local doctors, treatment providers and advocates participated in the discussion, which also featured a demonstration on administering the overdose drug naloxone. This was the last stop on the Surgeon General's "Turn the Tide Rx" Tour.

During Monday’s forum, which was held in cooperation with the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey, Murthy emphasized the importance of conversations between doctors and patients and proactive education for those involved. He also said he intends to send a letter to all of the nation’s doctors, urging them to educate themselves and talk to their patients about the risks of opiate addiction stemming from prescription painkillers.

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Elaine Pozycki, chair of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, a private not-for-profit coalition of professionals whose collective mission is to reduce the demand for illicit drugs in New Jersey, said she was pleased and encouraged that Murthy emphasized education as a key to combating the opiate epidemic.

“The Surgeon General’s remarks drive home the importance of the State Assembly passing, A 3424, legislation that requires doctors and other prescribers to discuss the potential risks of dependency before writing a prescription for an opiate-based painkiller as well as to review alternative treatments, when appropriate,” said Pozycki. “I call on the Assembly to pass this legislation without further delay.”

In summary, the forum focused on improving the prescribing practices of doctors to reduce the supply of misused opioids while continuing to treat pain safely and effectively.

In 2015, according to professionals, more than 28,000 New Jerseyans sought treatment for heroin or opioid abuse, which significantly outpaces previous years’ figures. The heroin death rate in Camden, Ocean, Cape May, Union, and Middlesex Counties significantly exceeds the number of treatment beds available per 100,000 people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and heroin-related deaths more than tripled from 2010-2014, with approximately three out of four new heroin users reporting first abusing prescription opioids.

Veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose as non-veterans, according to a 2011 study of the VA system.

This A 3424 legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Lagana (D-38), would ensure that parents have the critical information needed to make an informed decision about whether their teenager should be prescribed an opiate.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, the legislation has the added benefit of alerting parents to be on the lookout for any signs of dependence developing, if an opiate is prescribed.

Prevent Opiate Abuse leaders that were present noted that the teenage years are a “critical window of vulnerability for substance abuse disorders because the brain is still developing and still malleable,” according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Citing a recent University of Michigan study that demonstrated that high school students who use prescription opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin and other pain relievers are 33 percent more likely to abuse the drug by the age of 23, advocates reiterated the critical importance to stopping opiate abuse in the teenage years.

A more expansive patient notification bill (S2366) put forward by Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Senator Joe Vitale (D-19), which required a conversation with adult patients as well, passed the State Senate overwhelmingly at the end of 2014. 

Prevent Opiate Abuse is dedicated to significantly reducing the abuse of prescription opiate-based painkillers in New Jersey through advancing initiatives, both governmental and non-governmental, that are effective.

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