- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Gov. Chris Christie, who has made drug addiction treatment a key priority both as governor and on the presidential campaign trail, used his annual State of the State address to New Jersey lawmakers to put more state money and resources behind an initiative that advocates say is desperately needed to address the state’s opioid epidemic.

Along with plans to turn a recently closed prison into a dedicated drug treatment facility for inmates, Christie said the state will invest $100 million to raise Medicaid and state reimbursement rates for drug and mental health facilities, something that providers have long sought.

“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 on Tuesday. “It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do - and it’s the morally right thing to do.”

Those helping poor drug addicts in the state say low reimbursements rates have helped contribute to long waiting lists, made it harder for those without private insurance to get into treatment, and to hire and retain skilled workers.

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.

Christie said it will be the first major rate increase in more than a decade, and it comes after a review process that’s lasted several years. The Medicaid rate increase would go into effect in July, and the state reimbursements in January, according to Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services.

“You can pay lip service to this kind of area, but when you put your money where your mouth is, it’s huge,” said Debra Wentz, president of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, a nonprofit advocacy group for mental health and drug treatment providers.

“It’s a rare day when the priorities of providers to services to vulnerable populations and government align to the extent that they did,” she said. “It’s an unprecedented, historic commitment of funding to increase rates.”

Christie 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.

Christie also used Tuesday’s speech to both chambers of New Jersey’s Legislature to jump head first into a fight with lawmakers over pensions.

He said Democrats would have to raise taxes to live up to their proposal to make quarterly pension payments, calling on whoever voted Monday for a referendum next year on the issue to raise their hands if they supported tax increases. None did.

“Do we keep working to get things done and to move New Jersey forward?” Christie said. “Or are we going to pander to special interests, and send New Jersey back to the bad old days?”

Senate President Steve Sweeney argues that making quarterly payments helps ensure the full amount required under a 2011 law will be paid.

He criticized Christie for suggesting the proposed amendment would turn many residents in second-class citizens.

“It’s classic Christie, pitting people against each other,” Sweeney said.

The speech came as Christie’s campaign is gaining steam in the first-to-vote primary state of New Hampshire, where voters go to the polls Feb. 9. Christie has picked up key endorsements, risen in the polls and become the focus of sharp attacks from rival camps. He returns to New Hampshire Wednesday morning for a town hall.

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