With fourth class, leaders number 105 in 36 district
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey’s (NCADD-NJ) Advocacy Leader Program convened its fourth class in Trenton on Oct. 21-22, with the 26 members of the 2011 class bringing the total number of participants to 105 and the number of legislative districts represented to 36. The leaders will join members of the first three classes in focusing their advocacy on the regulations affecting addiction treatment under health care reform and on furthering criminal justice reform related to drug offenders. The theme of the training was how critical advocacy will be in the coming few years, stemming from the potential of health care reform to bring unprecedented changes to addiction treatment.
The two-day training featured the presentation of newly established award for Outstanding Advocacy, named for Carolyn Hadge, a member of the first Leader class who died suddenly in the spring. Her commitment and passion contributed greatly to the program’s success in advancing addiction treatment issues and in earning the respect of policy-makers. The Carolyn Hadge Award was presented to 2009 Leader Henry Muhammad (Hamilton), who called it a “crowning moment” in his life. Hadge’s efforts and the presentation of the award in her name harked back to the first flag-bearer of addiction advocacy: Marty Mann. Mann founded NCADD in 1944 and dedicated herself to advocating on behalf of those with addictive illness.
NCADD-NJ President and CEO Wayne Wirta provided a brief history of the agency and of Mann’s advocacy. He noted that Mann’s work to combat the stigma facing addiction, which she undertook more than 60 years ago, is “unfortunately, still relevant today.” NCADD, Wirta said, helped to create the first recovery community organizations and said its “mission continues today.” Wirta emphasized the unique opportunity the Leaders have: “The next two years will set the state for treatment for a long time to come.” He said that while health reform as passed at the federal level, the state level is where the specifics will be determined. He gave two examples. Wirta noted the reform’s goal of addiction being integrated in the primary care. Right now, New Jersey physicians refer just 6 percent of those who are treated for addiction. He also noted that the reform includes an expansion of Medicaid, which will mean greater access but with much uncertainty about the type of treatment that will be provided.
NCADD-NJ Advocacy Trainer Aaron Kucharski greeted the members of the class by informing them they had been selected from the largest number of applicants in the history of the program. Kucharski told them that all “rights” movements – Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – rely a great deal on the telling of stories by those who have been affected. He said the addiction treatment movement has largely been “defined by its silence,” which explains why stigma towards addicted individuals has persisted through the years. One of the most critical things Advocacy Leaders are taught is how to marry their personal stories with data to illustrate that addiction is an illness affecting many citizens and is as deserving of treatment as any disease.
Kucharski asked some of the Leaders to share why they wanted to be part of the program. Delia Downs, of Robbinsville, said she was tired of “losing generations of promising young people.” Another 2011 Leader, Devin Fox, is a young person who has come through addiction and has since stepped forward to speak about his recovery. Fox, who is pursuing a masters degree at Rutgers University and sits on the advocacy committee for the Association of Recovery Schools, said too few young people in recovery become involved to help break the stigma towards addiction. He hopes to use his example to help change that.
The new class heard from two Leader alumnae, Karen Barnett and Paul Ressler. Both exhorted the class to seize this opportunity to help improve addiction treatment but cautioned that it is also a time of risk in view of budget challenges the state is facing. Barnett echoed what Kucharski had said about social movements. “There is a common thread,” she said, “which is giving voice” to make needed change. Ressler, whose son died of an overdose, told the 2011 Leaders that “when we show up as an organized group (at a public hearing), we make an impact.” After all, he said, “the addicted cannot advocate for themselves.”
College of New Jersey Association Professor of Criminology Bruce Stout gave an overview of how New Jersey’s strict laws on drugs came into being. Stout spoke of the impact seen today of the shift to a hard line on drug crimes that had its origins in the 1970s, the inception of the drug war. Since then, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections budget has gone from an average of $70,000 annually to over a billion dollars today. In terms of number of inmates, the prison population has quadrupled, from between 6,000-7,000 to roughly 27,000 now. A third of those are in prison for a drug crime, Stout said.
He spoke about one law in particular that has contributed to the surge in imprisonment of drug offenders: the school zone law. Under this law, anyone arrested in possession with drugs within 1,000 feet of a school was sentenced to a mandatory prison term. The law had numerous flaws, a main one being that many cities have a density of school districts, making it virtually impossible to be outside a school zone. The law imprisoned many drug offenders, a largely disproportionate number of them being minorities as they tend to live in cities.
Ultimately, the school zone law was repealed, but Stout said it took five years of “concerted advocacy” to achieve this. Stout’s example of the school zone law illustrated that ill-conceived policies can be overturned, but it requires both passion and patience. Further reform is needed, he said. Currently, New Jersey spends $250 million a year imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. That money, Stout said, would be much better spent on addiction treatment and funding other diversion programs such as drug courts.
The Legal Action Center’s Gabrielle de la Gueronnieire began her presentation on health care reform by emphasizing that, “This is our window. We can impact how health care will work” as far as addiction treatment is concerned.
She reviewed some of the important points of health reform. For one, health care reform incorporates the federal mental health and addiction parity law of 2008. The parity law requires large employer plans that include coverage for mental health or addiction have no greater restrictions for those disorders than what they have in their medical/surgical coverage. Where state advocates play an important role in this law is in ensuring the insurance commissioner enforces its provisions, de la Gueronnieire explained.
As for health care reform, it stipulates that alcohol and drug addiction and mental health be included in the Essential Benefits Plan, which defines minimum care to be provided under the law. In addition, the reform expands Medicaid to include childless adults, meaning many more people living under the federal poverty level will have public health coverage.
Again, de la Gueronnieire said there is an important role for advocates at the state level on these issues. Federal health reform contains broad requirements with respect to addiction treatment. Those requirements could be rendered largely meaningless, however, without ensuring they include specifics such as the type of treatment and services provided as well as the duration of that care. Ensuring a continuum of care is among the important issues to be addressed at the state level.
NCADD-NJ Research Analyst Candice Singer spoke about including the care continuum in the Essential Benefits Package. She also mentioned the Health Care Exchanges, which are to provide a menu of plans and their costs for consumers. Singer said the state’s Health Care Exchange Committee should have someone representing addiction interests at the table.
Singer spoke about several policies that relate to criminal justice reform, including the expansion of drug courts and making the state’s Certificate of Rehabilitation for ex-offenders much more effective. The current certificate, which ostensibly would help ex-offenders with reentry into society and employment, in actuality offers little real assistance to those released from prison and apply for a job or try to obtain certain licenses or certifications.
Understanding the greatly evolving communications strategies is essential to any grassroots effort today. NCADD-NJ Communications Specialist Thomas Allen provided a glimpse at how social media is changing the world. As examples, he noted the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Both have greatly relied on such tools as Facebook and Twitter to expand their reach and convey messages. The great change seen with today’s media, is that “news finds us,” Allen said.
Another pivotal change is the “many to many” model seen with today’s disseminators of news. This is a marked break from the relatively few traditional news outlets that until recently were the dominant sources of information. Social media, Allen said, is now in the mainstream and is likely the most important “vehicle for change.”
Advocacy Trainer Kucharski brought the retreat full circle with his presentation, “Our Voices Have Power.” The content is designed to present information about addiction and recovery to people who know little or nothing about them, such as lawmakers and the media. The language culled for making a presentation to such an audience came from research by Faces and Voices of Recovery. The emphasis is on recovery, not a person’s active addiction. Part of this research illustrated that 88 percent of people in recovery believe it is important to put fact and voice on recovery. Kucharski said this dispels a myth that people in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction want to remain anonymous.
The Leaders will begin putting what they learned into practice soon. Their next training will take place in early December at the State House in Trenton, where some will meet with their state representatives.