By Victoria Ford
The Ocean County Opioid Advisory Council convened a public forum on Tuesday, March 7 at the Southern Service Center in Manahawkin, where officials heard from members of grassroots nonprofit organizations dedicated to addiction recovery and to fighting the opioid overdose crisis. Input was invited to help the newly appointed council determine how best to utilize the opioid settlement money Ocean County will receive – on average $900,000 per year for the next 18 years – to create and improve treatment options and services in the county. The council advises the Ocean County Board of Commissioners.
Community organizers from the New Jersey Resource Project and the New Jersey Organizing Project and members of Sea Change Recovery Community Organization attended the public forum in support of the Not One More campaign, which works to expand access to evidence-based treatments and harm reduction methods in New Jersey. Concerned parties packed the small meeting room – a big difference from the previous day’s two very poorly attended public forums, one held in person in Toms River, and one held virtually via Webex.
“It’s moments like this that make me believe we actually can take on the overdose crisis,” said NJRP/NJOP Executive Director Amanda Devecka-Rinear. “It’s the involvement of community members who care.”
Sea Change founder Elizabeth Beaty said she had created an RCO “because I was sick and tired of seeing my neighbors and my friends’ kids die.” She wants to hold the opioid council accountable for how the money will be spent, so it can make a real difference and help save lives.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing what we always do. We’re going to do it out of the love in our hearts for our community.”
The Sea Change/NJRP recovery model is “all paths, all folks, all welcome,” Devecka-Rinear said, whether a 12-step, abstinence-only program, or medication-assisted or harm reduction approach is a better individual fit.
Jamie Busch, assistant director of the Ocean County Department of Human Services, is on the operations team staffing the opioid advisory council and facilitated the public forum.
The Not One More campaign has compiled a list of settlement spending priorities, which Devecka-Rinear presented to Busch for delivery to the opioid advisory council: affordable access to treatment; evidence-based, compassionate care; community resources; transparency, accountability and oversight. The priorities were compiled using feedback from people directly impacted. NJRP surveyed some 7,000 members throughout the state about what’s important to them, Devecka-Rinear said.
“We’ve talked a lot about the importance of peers, the importance of the recovery process, the importance of meeting people where they’re at, right when they need help, in that moment,” she said.
In 2021, Busch explained, nationwide settlements were reached in litigation brought by states and subdivisions against the three largest pharmaceutical distributors – McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – plus a separate agreement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent, Johnson & Johnson. The big three will pay out $21 billion over 18 years, and J&J will pay up to an additional $5 billion over a nine-year period, Busch said.
Ocean County, having opted into the litigation, is entitled to its share of the $641 million the state of New Jersey won in the national settlements.
As Devecka-Rinear summed it up, “This opioid settlement money is from a lawsuit that was won because drug corporations knew that opioid painkillers were addictive, and they lied, and they marketed them to people anyway, and they killed people to make money. This settlement is blood money.”
While the payment schedule is complex, Busch said Ocean County will receive on average $900,000 per year. To oversee the funds, a brand-new Opioid Advisory Council was required to be formed. The advisory council members were selected and appointed by the Ocean County Board of Commissioners. The council is chaired by Kim Reilly, the Ocean County Health Department’s alcohol and drug abuse unit coordinator – a required role on council.
The council also provides advice to participating municipalities. Twelve of Ocean County’s 33 municipalities opted in and will receive a separate additional distribution: Barnegat, Beachwood, Berkeley, Brick, Jackson, Lacey, Lakewood, Little Egg Harbor, Manchester, Point Pleasant, Stafford and Toms River. Those awards, based on population, range from a few thousand dollars to $135,000, in Lakewood.
“Looks like Long Beach Island has stuck their head in the sand and said, ‘We just don’t have a problem here,’” said Kathy King of Beach Haven. “And it’s ridiculous because obviously there is a problem.”
In late 2022, Busch continued, additional settlements were reached with three pharmacy chains, CVS, Walgreen’s and Walmart, and two additional manufacturers, Allergan and Teva. Ocean County has until April 18 to decide if it wants to get in on those lawsuits. If so, payouts could bring in an extra $700,000 per year.
The agreement has a list of 113 approved uses for the funds, she said, most of them having to do with treatment and recovery services for opioid use disorder, prevention of overprescribing, prevention of overdose deaths, support for first responders and healthcare providers, core strategies such as medication-assisted treatments and harm reduction, help for target populations (pregnant and parenting women), training for law enforcement, and research.
The county wants to address the greatest areas of need and have the best possible impact, Busch said.
With a built-in planning cycle every three years, the council will gather public input, develop a plan, distribute funds, procure services, and implement and oversee the programs.
“Hopefully our needs will change and evolve, in a positive direction, at least on a periodic basis,” Busch said.
Sea Change member Elissa Tierney shared openly about her recovery journey, which has included fentanyl, xylazine, Narcan, numerous detox centers, and a chronic dearth of resources for meaningful help along the way.
“I don’t want my twins growing up in a world like this,” she said. “All I want to do is end this crisis.”
One idea Tierney shared is for hospital emergency departments to have a detox unit where incoming patients can stabilize until they can be admitted to a treatment facility.
NJOP’s Jody Stewart knows firsthand the inconvenience of having to drive from Little Egg Harbor to Toms River for methadone, and the even bigger struggle of managing a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance use disorder. “So, I want to see a program that reaches out to more people,” Stewart said.
Getting drugs is easier than getting help in Southern Ocean County, she added.
Navigating life after leaving a treatment center is a daunting (and sobriety-jeopardizing) task, as many recovering addicts face the challenges of finding resources and support. Housing, furnishings, transportation, therapy and more are needed after getting out of treatment, according to Marlene Roddy of Little Egg Harbor, a peer recovery specialist in the state Department of Child Protection and Permanency office.
“I’m about recovery, all the way around,” she said. “People need help, and they need love.”
They need what Sea Change member Stephen Davies called a “continuum of care.”
Beaty said the county needs “recovery housing that is truly supportive, and not a revolving door, and not cramming people into rooms, and not kicking people out.” Effective housing “supports harm reduction, not just a hard-core abstinence-only model,” she said, “because we truly need to meet people where they’re at.”
Housing options are more readily available for men, she said, even though women in treatment and recovery may be pregnant or raising kids or may need to leave a domestic violence situation. Even churches will turn them away, in Beaty’s experience. “They say, ‘No, we don’t want those type of people here.’”
Sea Change volunteer Laura Dunlap was once a probation officer in Ocean County Superior Court and would investigate at-risk juveniles to make recommendations to a judge for their sentencing and/or rehabilitation. The resources were not available in the county back then, either, she said.
“It’s upsetting to sit here, 35 years later, and hear we’re still having the same problems.”
The Not One More campaign’s settlement spending priorities specifically include affordable access to evidence-based treatment facilities, compliant supportive housing, and harm reduction measures across under-resourced rural and suburban regions of New Jersey.
“We need free Narcan vending machines in areas with high densities of overdose and in prisons for people upon release,” the campaign statement reads. “Those without reliable transportation should benefit from mobile units that hand out MAT (medication-assisted treatment) on site. EBT/SNAP-style money cards or specific service vouchers must be available so everyone, particularly people with Medicaid, Medicare or no insurance, can afford treatment costs and transportation.”
In terms of evidence-based, compassionate care, “case managers and peer recovery advocates should be available at the beginning of recovery by accompanying first responders to overdose calls and supporting patients stabilizing in hospitals. All healthcare personnel working with people in recovery must have evidence-based training. Syringe access programs are also very helpful in keeping people alive.
“We need more Recovery Community Organizations that offer safe spaces for community support and recovery resources. Health educators in every school must be trained to support families in connecting students in need to recovery resources. And we must continue to remove barriers that make it difficult for people who use drugs or have criminal records to secure safe and affordable housing.”
With regard to transparency, accountability and oversight, New Jersey’s recovery system is problematic, according to the Not One More campaign, which recommends Opioid Settlement Advisory Council meetings to be subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.
The campaign literature insists, “We need to see where funding is going, why, and how it’s helping people. All decisions on settlement funding must put people over profits, be appropriately documented, and available to the public.”
— Victoria Ford