As was the case at December’s Department of Human Services budget session, the Assembly Budget Committee hearing on March 7 was marked by an outpouring from advocates urging policy-makers to, at a minimum, sustain funding for addiction treatment. Several of the advocates seated at the witness table had standing behind them, as one witness described it, “a legion” of supporters, all wearing yellow stickers that read, “Addiction is a Disease, Let’s treat it that way.” The testimony consistently noted that treatment of addiction produces a savings for the state in both dollars and lives.
Before the numerous citizen advocates made their case for treatment of addiction, the committee heard from CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Debra Wentz. Her testimony credited Gov. Chris Christie’s budget for not looking to make cuts that would impact vulnerable populations. Wentz praised the proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget for reflecting not only “understanding and compassion, but also sound fiscal sense.”
The savings thorough behavioral health treatment is seen in reduced emergency room visits and hospitalizations, Wentz said. In dollars, the amount to be saved would exceed a billion dollars annually. In addition, such treatment, which includes the continuum of addiction care, would allow patients to “secure employment and pay taxes.” And, she stressed, it would have “tremendous potential for reduced crime,” which consumes 17 percent of New Jersey’s total budget.
Wentz’s testimony was reinforced by a strong showing of citizen advocates making the case, in particular, for the state strengthening itself fiscally through proper treatment of addiction. Shortly after Wentz testified, a host of Advocacy Leaders spoke, each making a personal appeal that incorporated the message that treating addiction is a good investment.
She provided a concrete example of the difference between treating addiction and not. Wentz reviewed for committee members the case of a man named David. He had been a heroin addict, but because he had the opportunity to go from jail to Turning Point, a treatment agency, he has been clean for four years and anticipated finishing college. Without such access to treatment, Wentz said, David would likely still be out on the streets and would have likely landed back in prison, a burden to taxpayers and a life with no prospects. “There are many like David,” she said, “who can be on their way to Recovery Now.” The advocates in the room said “recovery now” in unison with her. Wentz stressed that by supporting the proposed budget, the state would seem more cases like David’s.
Following Wentz, a National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-NJ Advocacy Leader, Delia Downes of Robbinsville, impressed committee members by drawing the distinction between addiction and a habit. Addiction, Downes said emphatically, is not a habit, though it is commonly mislabeled as such. One committee member praised Downes for the clarity with which she differentiated addiction and a behavior that could rightly be called a habit. She insisted that people in treatment for addiction “are sick people, not bad people.”
Earl Liphardt, another Advocacy Leader, was responsible for bringing to the hearing room approximately 30 clients being treated for addiction. He said to the chair, Assemblyman Vincent Preito, that the faces before him were all success stories. In terms of dollars, Liphardt said that every dollar spent on addiction returns a savings of $12 in reduced health, criminal justice and other costs.
Advocacy Leader Thomas King summarized the case for treating addiction, noting its impact on the state’s residents: “Alcohol and drug addiction is the most serious health problem facing us today. And it cuts a wide swath across NJ.”
King, who works for a treatment facility in Newark, said that he regularly sees drug use in the city’s Lincoln Park. He told the committee an anecdote of one person approaching him for help with his addiction, and King immediately took to nearby Integrity House’s Intake. King said that was not the only such instance when this happened. He said “Investing in effective addiction treatment now will enable meaningful cost savings in the future, both short and long term.”
Over the years, insufficient treatment resources in the state have caused more than their share of loss, something Advocacy Leader Kate Holt understands all too well. Holt spoke movingly about the death of her son, Peter, to an addiction to Oxycotin. Peter had gone for a brief detoxification, but that short intervention was inadequate to help him enter stable recovery, and he overdosed shortly thereafter. His death, Holt said, devastated their family at the time and still haunts them eight years later. Her grandson, Hold sadi, has lived all but the first 15 months of his life without his father.
NCADD-NJ Advocacy Trainer Aaron Kucharski expressed deserved pride in the testimony of the leaders at recent hearings. He said, “To hear the Governor speak to addiction as a preventable and treatable disease, and hear that echoed among many of the budget committee members is a great way to measure the effort the Advocacy Leaders have put in over the years.” The fact that policy-makers are repeating the language of the leaders with respect to addiction is a tribute to the message they have delivered.
Kucharski noted that “the leaders have been testifying at these public hearing for years and have gained a significant victory in delivering a consistent message to the state that funding addition services and providing people the right resources saves both lives, and dollars for the state. “