Gov. Chris Christie stands in the Assembly chamber of the Statehouse while delivering his State Of The State address Tuesday. | AP Photo/Mel Evans
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie made a national appeal for redemption in his final year in office by devoting much of his State of the State address Tuesday to the issue of drug addiction, laying out a “plan to attack” an epidemic that is “ripping the very fabric of our state apart.”
The two-term Republican governor promised to make the issue of addiction a top priority in the coming months “because our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey’s families than any other issue we could confront.”
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“Our friends are dying,” Christie said, staring into the camera as he spoke in front of both houses of the State Legislature. “Our neighbors are dying. Our co-workers are dying. Our children are dying. Every day. In numbers we can no longer afford to ignore.”
Notably, the governor said he wanted to establish limits to the amount of opioids doctors can prescribe and that he plans to pressure insurance companies to pay for substance abuse treatment.
“I will not have the blood of addicted New Jerseyans on my hands because we waited to act,” Christie said. “I will not willingly watch another 1,600 of our citizens die and watch their families mourn and suffer. We cannot waste another minute of our time in leadership in this town on the next partisan-fueled fake scandal.”
The governor made only passing mention of other issues facing New Jersey during his 71-minute speech in the statehouse, forgoing any details about how he would tackle statewide concerns like school funding, crumbling transportation infrastructure, an underfunded pension system and a credit rating that is the second-lowest in the nation.
Christie said the state of the state is “good,” and declared that he has “boldly dealt with so many of the long-term problems we inherited in 2010.”
He said his administration had “restored responsible budgeting to New Jersey government,” even though the state has faced a record 10 credit downgrades since he took office.
“I stand here today prepared to give every ounce of energy I have to make 2017 a year where we solve more big problems for our citizens,” Christie said, before pivoting to drug addiction.
Leaders of the Democratic-dominated Legislature, often quick to slam Christie after his annual address, were left with no choice but to praise the bulk of his remarks and to promise to work together toward the shared goal of ending addiction. His speech included 30 applause lines and prompted four standing ovations.
“The governor’s attachment to this issue, it starting with the abuse of prescription medication, is 100 percent on point,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, the chamber’s majority leader.
But, Greenwald added, “If it’s only on this issue and doesn’t dig deeper into the other issues on education, health care, growing our economy, economic independence for young people in this state, we’re glossing over the root of the problem.”
The speech comes as the governor’s approval rate has plunged to 18 percent — near the lowest for any governor in memory — after he spent years traveling the country in search of national prominence before a failed bid for president. His once sky-high popularity began to plummet after the Bridgegate scandal and has never recovered.
After being passed over by President-elect Donald Trump for a job in Washington, Christie appears to be making a comeback push at home by focusing on a subject that’s been important to him for years. His discussion of drug addiction provided one of the biggest moments he had during his 2016 campaign, when a video of him discussing the death of a friend who was hooked on opioids went viral. He spoke about same friend on Tuesday.
Details about the speech were leaked exclusively to NBC News on Tuesday morning, a sign of his office’s interest in national attention. His office has also hired a video crew that has tracked him at recent public events where he discussed addiction, and Christie said on Tuesday he is planning an aggressive public awareness campaign.
Christie released a video half an hour before his remarks in which he evoked the idea of legacy.
“When you’re governor, they often ask you if you’re worried about legacy,” Christie says in a voice-over recording played over still images of addiction-related events he has held throughout the year. “And if you’re worried about legacy, you’re probably focusing on the wrong thing. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be conscious of it.”
While the governor has implemented a variety of addiction-related programs since taking office in 2010, including expanding mandatory drug court programs and access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, the number of overdose deaths in the state from heroin and opioids has continued to rise.
More than 1,500 people died from drug-related deaths in New Jersey in 2015, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, according to the most recent data from the state medical examiner. More than half of the total drug-related deaths were heroin-related. Deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl nearly tripled from 2014, accounting for more than 400 deaths.
The governor’s “comprehensive plan” to fight addiction during his final 373 days in office includes a provision sure to prove controversial with the health care industry. Christie proposed limiting the supply of opioids a doctor or dentist can initially prescribe for acute pain to 5 days. As it currently stands, providers can write initial prescriptions for up to a 30-day supply.
“This is dangerous, it’s ill-advised and it is absolutely unnecessary,” Christie said, adding that the blanket 30-day prescription is “contributing to this crisis in a significant way.”
Christie also blamed the insurance industry for contributing to the biggest economic barriers to treatment and urged bipartisan cooperation from Democratic and Republican lawmakers to pass a law in the next 30 days that would mandate health insurance coverage for the first six months of in-patient or outpatient drug rehabilitation treatment.
“Whether your child lives or dies should not be the subject of a denial letter from an insurance company,” he said.
If legislation were to pass, it would only apply to around 30 percent of the commercial insurance market that is regulated at the state level.
Other proposals include the creation of addiction hotline and website to help guide people through a “daunting bureaucracy” by providing information on licensed treatment facilities for children and adults, as well as insurance guidance and support programs.
Christie also proposed changing state regulations to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be cared for in licensed treatment facilities as children and providing $12 million to open more beds for this “very vulnerable population.”
The governor’s focus on addiction, he said during the speech, is founded in the real life experiences of family, friends and others he’s known whose lives have been forever changed by addiction. He’s spoken often of his mother’s addiction to cigarettes and her death from lung cancer. He has recounted the story of his opioid-addicted law school friend and his eventual death many times.
But on Tuesday he talked about a new personal connection to addiction: A.J. Solomon, a former aide and the son of a prominent New Jersey political family.
The man’s father, Lee Solomon, is a state Supreme Court justice. His mother, Diane Solomon, is a commissioner for the Board of Public Utilities and its former chairwoman.
Christie said Solomon, who worked on his advance team, would score heroin in Camden before going to work in the statehouse in Trenton. He was homeless and on the verge of suicide before deciding to get clean. Three years later, Solomon is opening his own rehabilitation clinic, and he was in the audience Tuesday.
“A.J. is the architect of the sober living reforms I just outlined, based on his experience and the experience of others,” Christie said. “You see, AJ’s story is not an uncommon story; it just has an uncommon ending.”
— Additional reporting by David Giambusso, Matt Friedman and Katherine Landergan.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect Christie’s spoken remarks and has additional details about the speech.