As NJ overdose deaths climb higher, rethinking access to methadone
Last year there were 3,046 suspected overdose drug deaths in New Jersey, but recent state data shows this year’s total is on pace to top 3,200.
In response, South Jersey congressman Donald Norcross is pushing a plan to increase access to and modernize the process of obtaining methadone to treat opioid use disorders.
He said that while the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths is nothing new, the pandemic has made it considerably worse, and the total number of drug-related deaths in the Garden State by the end of this year is expected to be the highest ever recorded.
“And these are not faceless numbers, they are our friends, our family, our co-workers, our loved ones, we must do more for people in the grip of addiction,” he said.
His Opioid Treatment Access Act would allow certain doctors to prescribe up to a 1 month supply of methadone for those in recovery, and permit those individuals to pick up the medication at a local pharmacy instead of traveling to a methadone clinic every day.
Why should things change?
Norcross said requiring people to travel to a location for their medication and then wait in line can disrupt work schedules, especially if their place of business is far away.
He pointed out diabetics are not required to travel long distances every day and wait in line for insulin, but for those in the grip of addiction, it’s a different story.
The FDA approved methadone in 1947 and regulations were last updated in 1972, so the time has come to modernize its use, he said, adding that the Opioid Treatment Access Act “gives the flexibility on where and how a patient receives care, allows pharmacies to fill methadone prescriptions.”
What do the experts say?
Dr. Kaitlan Baston, the division head of addiction medicine for Cooper University Health Care, supports the proposed legislation.
She said federal restrictions on treatments like methadone for opioid abuse disorder often prohibit patients from accessing this medication.
“What’s clear to me is that in order for our life-saving medications to work, people need better access to them,’ she said.
She noted the measure also “calls for research so we can demonstrate that these changes save more lives without dangerous consequences.”
Baston stressed we need to remove stigma associated with substance use disorders and to create meaningful programs that affect real change, and the Norcross legislation does both.
He said changing the way methadone is accessed would provide several benefits, including “less time waiting in line, and more time living life and getting better.”
Norcross pointed out the proposed legislation would also permit aspects of methadone care to carried out using telehealth visitation.
“We’ve learned some lessons over the pandemic, and it’s clear that there’s a pathway forward that will help more people,” he said.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.