LIVINGSTON, NJ – In their latest effort to raise awareness and advance policies to tackle the ongoing heroin and opioid addiction crisis plaguing New Jersey and the nation, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker today hosted U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin for a forum with local doctors, treatment providers, and advocates at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.

More than 300 people attended today’s heroin and prescription opioid addiction forum hosted by Sens. Menendez and Booker.

“Our state is facing one of the most challenging public health crises in recent memory. Nearly every community has been impacted; too many lives have been lost, and too many families torn apart by heroin and prescription opioid addiction,” said Sen. Menendez, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee with direct oversight over federal health policy. “By proactively engaging the medical community and all New Jerseyans, it is my hope that we can not only highlight this ever-growing crisis, but devise a path to end it. I am pleased that Drs. Murthy and Shulkin are lending their voices and expertise in that effort.”

“Heroin addiction and opioid abuse have reached epidemic levels in the United States, and it is tearing individuals, families, and communities apart. We need policies that will combat the devastating impact this crisis has caused,” Sen. Booker said. “Today’s forum is critical for raising awareness and I am grateful to Drs. Murthy and Shulkin for joining this substantive conversation to strengthen our regional and national commitment to fighting for federal resources, education, and treatment funding. Together, we can and will tackle this crisis head on.”

The discussion largely focused on improving the prescribing practices of doctors to reduce the supply of misused opioids while still treating pain safely and effectively. An important driver of the opioid epidemic is legally written prescriptions from doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. By improving prescribing practices, clinicians can reduce the supply of misused opioids while still treating pain safely and effectively. The forum also featured a demonstration on how to administer the lifesaving, overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

(l-r) RWJBarnabas Health Chief Medical Officer John Bonamo, Barnabas Medical Center President & CEO Steve Zieniewicz, Sen. Booker, Dr. Murthy, Sen. Menendez, Dr. Shulkin, moderator Angelo Valente from Drug Free NJ

”A key to ending the opioid epidemic is to shift the way we think and talk about addiction, so that our attitudes reflect compassion and understanding” said Dr. Murthy. “Addiction is not a moral failing or a character flaw. It is a chronic illness, one that can be treated effectively, but only if the people who are suffering feel free to come forward and ask for help."

The Surgeon General is currently on a national tour designed to educate and mobilize prescribers to take immediate action to end this epidemic. Turn the Tide is a national campaign based on the concept of “prescribers talking to prescribers.” Dr. Murthy is visiting states, like New Jersey, that have been especially hard hit by the prescription opioid epidemic and will send letters to over two million prescribers and health care professionals, urging them to: improve prescribing practices, inform their patients about the risks of opioid addiction, and connect people with opioid use disorders to evidence-based treatment.

Heroin deaths in New Jersey are up 160 percent since 2010, with more than 1,200 overdose-related deaths last year alone. In 2015, more than 28,000 New Jerseyans sought treatment for heroin or opioid abuse, significantly outpacing previous year’s figures. The heroin death rate in five counties – Camden, Ocean, Cape May, Union, and Middlesex – significantly exceeds the number of treatment beds available per 100,000 people.

(l-r) Dr. Murthy, Valente, Sen. Menendez discussing the opioid crisis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and heroin-related deaths more than tripled from 2010-2014 with approximately three out of four new heroin users report first abusing prescription opioids. Veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose as non-veterans, according to a 2011 study of the VA system.

"The Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention program recovery services for ‎opioid overdose ‎should be commended. VHA has undertaken a national initiative to make overdose education and naloxone rescue kits available to Veterans at risk of accidental or intentional overdose. ‎‎ Reducing opioid overdose has long-term success when coupled with attentive clinical follow-up‎,” Dr. Shulkin said.

“RWJBarnabas Health is extremely proud to have been selected to host this important public health discussion on the opioid addiction crisis in New Jersey,” said Barry H. Ostrowsky, president and CEO, RWJBarnabas Health, the largest hospital network in New Jersey. “The Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention (IFP) last year was awarded funding through the state’s Opioid Overdose Recovery Program Grant (OORP) for a two-year pilot program, to provide pioneering recovery support services for those individuals reversed from an opioid overdose and treated at select hospital emergency departments in and out of the RWJBarnabas Health.”

Sens. Menendez and Booker cosponsored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which was signed into law last month, and continue to fight for full funding. Among its provisions, the legislation provides resources to states to expand disposal sites for unwanted prescription drugs and to develop better monitoring systems for prescription drug use, makes naloxone more widely available to law enforcement agencies and other first responders to help prevent overdoses and save lives, creates an evidence-based opioid and heroin treatment and intervention program, and sets national treatment standards.

In March, the Senators convened a statewide summit to explore solutions to the heroin and opioid addiction epidemic gripping New Jersey and the nation. A month later, they partnered with local law enforcement to promote National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day and encourage New Jerseyans to discard all unwanted narcotic pain killers and other prescription drugs at participating local police stations and county prosecutor’s offices. Menendez held another strategy session in the fall to discuss drug treatment options and programs, access to medications, and explore ways the federal government can help.

Last week, Sens. Menendez and Booker joined a bipartisan group of 29 senators urging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to improve access to substance abuse treatment in response to America’s worsening opioid addiction crisis by expanding covered services to include substance abuse treatment in all medically necessary care settings.

Sen. Menendez pressed U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in February to expand access to medication assisted treatment options, which led HHS a month later to move to double the current patient limit for qualified physicians who prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorders.