New Jersey residents in treatment for opioid addiction will now be allowed to use medical marijuana, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday, one of several steps he outlined to combat the enduring opioid epidemic.
With drug overdose deaths continuing to rise in New Jersey, Murphy also announced that starting in April, Medicaid will end its policy of requiring prior authorization for medication-assisted treatment for opioid-use disorder.
Although medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, has been spurned by some as substituting one drug for another, substantial evidence exists that it is the most effective method of treating opioid addiction when used together with therapy. Prior authorizations have been a barrier to some people receiving lifesaving treatment in a timely fashion, Murphy said.
Murphy credited his Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, for expanding access to MAT among non-Medicaid-covered individuals but said those insured through Medicaid had been left out.
“Removing unnecessary barriers to MAT is the right thing both for patients and providers,” Murphy said, adding that Medicaid recipients nationally make up an estimated 40 percent of those struggling with opioid addiction.
All residential treatment facilities in New Jersey paid by Medicaid must offer MAT starting in July, officials said Wednesday. In addition, the state on Wednesday started allowing patients suffering from opioid addiction to enroll in the state's medical marijuana program in conjunction with MAT.
Previously, such patients were eligible to enroll in the state’s medical marijuana program only if they had chronic pain related to their opioid use disorder.
Murphy, a Democrat, announced the new initiatives at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, where he was joined by Cabinet members and lawmakers. His news conference followed one held by his wife, Tammy, an hour earlier to discuss new efforts to promote maternal health and reduce racial disparities in birth outcomes.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on combating the opioid epidemic by Murphy and Christie, drug overdose deaths in New Jersey have continued to climb in recent years. Drug overdose deaths rose to 3,118 in 2018, an average of more than eight people a day and a 13 percent increase over 2017, according to state figures.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal attributed that increase to the growing prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin and can be fatal even in tiny doses.
Grewal said more than 60 percent of suspected heroin seized by authorities in New Jersey last year contained fentanyl or an analogue. That’s compared with 2 percent at the beginning of 2015.
“Why the increase?” he said. “Drug dealers are cutting fentanyl, which is much cheaper than heroin, with already powerful drugs they are peddling to increase both their profits and the potency of their drugs.”
Cabinet officials outlined other efforts the state is taking to address the opioid crisis. Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said her department would train more doctors to provide medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, create new Medicaid reimbursement incentives to encourage such treatment and establish so-called Centers of Excellence for opioid treatment at Rutgers University and Rowan University.