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Christie drug treatment ideas called 'work in progress'

Advocates and treatment providers were heartened by Gov. Christie's focus on addiction and mental health during Tuesday's State of the State address.

Advocates and treatment providers were heartened by Gov. Christie's focus on addiction and mental health during Tuesday's State of the State address.

But the impact of the initiatives Christie outlined wasn't yet clear Wednesday - in part because funding must go through the budget process.

"It's still a work in progress," said Ed Martone, policy analyst for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey, a nonprofit that advocates for people in recovery. "But stating the ideal . . . it was more than helpful, I think."

During his speech, Christie announced plans to reopen a shuttered Burlington County prison as a drug treatment facility for inmates; devote $100 million to increasing access to mental health and substance abuse treatment; and spend $1.7 million to expand a treatment intervention program for people recovering from drug overdoses.

"Addiction is an illness and is something we can beat," said Christie, who as governor - and Republican presidential candidate - has advocated for helping addicts.

Christie previously expanded New Jersey's drug court program, mandating treatment for certain offenders.

The initiatives Christie described Tuesday would expand availability of treatment for people not in the criminal justice system, proponents said - through a pledge to raise reimbursement rates paid to providers of mental health and addiction services.

Raising those rates, which providers describe as among the lowest in the nation, would enable them to provide more services and expand, said Debra L. Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

Christie didn't detail the increases. But "we were assured, in many instances," rates will be "30 to 50 percent greater," said Wentz, a member of the governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services said Medicaid rates would increase July 1, and non-Medicaid rates would increase in January 2017.

Martone said an additional $100 million toward treatment "would be important. Literally, I don't know how many methadone programs going out of business, because the reimbursement rates are so low."

Christie's administration did not respond to questions Wednesday on what the state was currently spending on addiction and mental health reimbursement rates, or what breakdown of the additional funding would come from the state as opposed to the federal government.

"For now, we're only able to say that will be determined in the course of the budget development process," said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor.

While praising efforts to combat addiction, Democrats questioned how Christie planned to pay for the ideas.

Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden) predicted that Christie's plan would come at the expense of funding the state pension system.

"I guess he hopes [public employees] get addicted to substance abuse, so we can move them into housing in a state prison and give them world-class health care," Greenwald said after Christie's speech Tuesday.

For some, additional funding may not come fast enough.

Alan Oberman, executive director of the John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City, said the delay in raising some reimbursement rates until January 2017 wouldn't be adequate to keep the 119-bed treatment center open - "not unless other things happen."

The inpatient center represents 10 percent of all long-term beds in the state and is the only such facility in South Jersey, according to Oberman.

Oberman, who was to meet with an administration official Thursday, said Christie's other initiatives were promising, depending on their implementation.

The Mid-State Correctional Facility at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which closed in 2014, is expected to be renovated by early 2017 into a drug-treatment center with 696 beds.

While various treatments currently are provided to inmates, the center will be "the first licensed, clinically driven program offered by the department," said Matt Schuman, a Department of Corrections spokesman.

Schuman said the renovation was already scheduled and funded, but exact cost wouldn't be determined until vendors submitted contract proposals.

For inmates with addiction, "the integral part is the reentry process," Oberman said. For treatment to succeed, inmates need to find employment and housing, he said.

Oberman said Christie's plan to expand the "recovery coaches" program was significant, because hospital personnel have a low success rate in getting overdose victims to seek addiction treatment.

Describing the intervention program, Christie said during his speech that recovery coaches "are often in recovery themselves."

The program is in Camden, Essex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties, according to the Department of Human Services; a new contract was recently awarded to Passaic County, and another request for proposals will determine expansion counties.

Christie also said he would increase funding for three Medicaid "accountable care organizations," which "are working to identify high-cost patients and coordinate their treatment for physical and behavioral health."

Jeffrey Brenner, executive director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said "early indications" were that the organizations would receive $1 million, though funding was subject to the budget process.

"This really puts a wind in all of our sails - puts a clear message the state is behind our effort," Brenner said Wednesday.

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Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.