- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday announced plans to turn a recently closed prison into a drug treatment facility for inmates and said the state will invest $100 million to raise reimbursement rates for drug and mental health facilities, something that providers have long sought to help address the state’s opioid epidemic.

Christie, who has made drug treatment a priority in New Jersey and as part of his Republican presidential campaign, used his State of the State address to unveil the changes.

He also said the state will expand a recovery coach program that connects counselors with addicts after they’re treated at hospitals when revived by the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

But the change that the state’s drug treatment providers have been waiting the longest for is the rate increase. Those helping poor drug addicts in the state say low reimbursement rates have helped contribute to long waiting lists and made it more difficult for those without private insurance to get into treatment.

“The investment we’re making will change lives and get more people into treatment earlier, instead of the emergency room or prison later,” Christie told lawmakers. “It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do - and it’s the morally right thing to do.”

Christie said it will be the first major rate increase in more than a decade and comes after a review process that’s lasted several years.

About 40 percent of the 79,000 people in need of substance abuse treatment in New Jersey in 2014 didn’t get it, according to state estimates. That percentage has increased slightly since Christie came into office, while the number of people who have entered state-financed treatment programs has decreased.

Alan Oberman, who has said his John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City will have to close in April because of financial issues, said the initiatives announced by Christie are good news. But he said that state officials told a group of providers on a conference call after the speech that only Medicaid rates will increase this July, while state reimbursement rates won’t increase until next January.

He said that means his program still won’t be sustainable without further help from the state. He has been meeting with officials from Christie’s office to try to work out a solution.

Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services, confirmed the proposed rollout dates for the rate increases, which she noted will be part of the fiscal year 2017 budget process. Christie will propose his budget to lawmakers next month.

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