Opioid deaths down in NJ, but battle against epidemic goes on

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that deaths from opioid overdoses in New Jersey dropped in 2019, from 3,118 to 3,021.

“It’s a 3% decrease,” said the first-term Democrat who has made countering the opioid epidemic a priority of his administration. “I guess we should take some comfort in that. It’s 97 fewer deaths in 2019 than in 2018.”

Murphy also said the number of opioid prescriptions filled last year was down by 6%.

Murphy made his remarks at a roundtable discussion in Warren County. Among those in attendance was Jim Perry, a member of the Hardwick Township Committee who knows all too well the stakes of the fight against addiction. He lost his 23-year-old son to the opioid crisis four years ago.

“My battle is over. I’ve lost my son,” said Perry, the president of the state League of Municipalities. “I’m here now to fight the battle for other people, so they don’t have to go through what I go through, what my daughter goes through, what my ex-wife goes through.”

Murphy said his administration’s game plan seemed to be working, but the battle is far from over. It’s backed by $100 million in this year’s budget, which he suggested will be there again next year.

“We have had back-to-back $100 million investments in our budget directed at this crisis,” he said. “I’m not announcing next year’s budget until six or eight weeks from now, but you should assume we will continue the fight.”

Also in attendance was Attorney General Gurbir Grewal who noted that law enforcement in New Jersey has shifted away from treating addiction as a crime.

“We are no longer locking up this disease,” he said. “We’ve acknowledged — and it’s a cliché now because we’ve said it so many times — that we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. But we mean it. We’re walking the walk and we’re taking that public health approach to this crisis.”

Meanwhile, the head of the state Department of Human Services used the occasion to make an impassioned pitch for keeping the Affordable Care Act in place, saying that many of New Jersey’s 500,000 Medicaid recipients have substance-abuse issues.

“And the fact there is this blatant effort to gut that law through the courts is really what keeps me up at night,” said Commissioner Carole Johnson, of Republican-led challenges to what’s informally known as Obamacare.

And while the attorney general has joined a lawsuit against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma who are makers of the time-release painkiller Oxycontin, Murphy also spoke of slapping a tax on the pharmaceutical industry.

“You mention going to the boardrooms as a legal matter, I want to go to the boardrooms as a financial matter and ask for a per-pill charge that we would then take and help us defray some of the $100 million that we spend in this arena,” he said.

While the numbers are looking slightly better, 3,021 deaths per year is still eight New Jerseyans every day.

“We’re not doing any victory dances,” Murphy said. “There’s still the 3,021 lives lost last year, this continues to be an epidemic.”