TRENTON -- Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Wednesday that sets a five-day limit on initial prescriptions for pain-killing opioids and mandates insurance companies to accept addicts into treatment without delay.
Christie declared the law, (S3) the toughest in the country in the fight against heroin and opioid addiction, which killed 1,600 New Jerseyans in 2015, the governor said.
"Today, we are taking action to save lives," Christie said.
During his Jan. 10 State of the State address, the Republican governor challenged the state Legislature to send him a bill tackling the opioid epidemic that he could sign within 30 days. During a Statehouse press conference late Wednesday, Christie complimented state lawmakers who only missed the deadline because of a snow storm last week.
How Christie wants to force doctors to limit opioid painkiller prescriptions
"That tells you how important this issue is to families all across New Jersey," he said.
The press conference took place minutes after the state Assembly voted 64-1 with five abstentions to pass the bill. The Senate approved it last week.
The legislation has been controversial because it requires doctors treating patients for conditions that cause acute pain - such as surgery and extensive dental work - to limit the length of the initial prescription to no more than five days.
The Medical Society of New Jersey, the state's largest physician lobbying group, quickly objected to lawmakers meddling in doctor-patient matters. Even some lawmakers who voted for the bill in committee expressed worries it was going too far.
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth) made an impassioned plea for his colleagues' support, saying, "This is ravaging each one of our communities. We must fight it together."
O'Scanlon acknowledged the five-day limit is "dramatic," and told his colleagues before the vote he would consider introducing a bill in the future that allowed initial prescriptions to last seven instead of five days.
New York, Maine and Massachusetts have enacted laws limiting initial prescription to a seven-day supply.
But it was important to support this bill because most doctors routinely write scripts for 30 days, no matter the ailment, O'Scalon said. Too many people - patients or their children rummaging through their medicine cabinets - often develop an dependency on the leftover pills, he said.
Christie said he would veto a bill expanding the prescription limit to seven days.
The law allows physicians to add another five days to the prescription after the fourth day if the pain has not subsided, explained Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), one of the bill's prime sponsors.
"There shouldn't be a day a patient who goes without medication if they need it. That decision is between the doctor and the patient," he added.
The measure would not apply to hospice or cancer patients or people in long-term care facilities, according to the bill. Nor would it apply to patients who are being treated for chronic pain, Vitale said.
"We just want to limit the volume of the pills out there," Vitale said.
A less controversial but equally significant aspect of the legislation provides addicts with health coverage up to six months of insurance for medically ordered inpatient and outpatient substance use treatment.
The law also prohibits insurance companies from requiring patients receive prior authorization for the coverage.
Since the state began running TV public service announcements to promote a hotline linking people to treatment, 1-844-REACH-NJ, and a website, www.reachnj.gov, the number of calls has more than tripled, Christie said.
Call volume rose from 21 on Jan. 21, the first day of the ad campaign, to 72 on Jan. 26. More recent call logs were not available, Christie's spokesman Brian Murray said.
"It's not that people don't need help, they don't know where to go for help. sometimes they are embarrassed to ask for help," Christie said. "I can put the face of the leader of this state and say, don't wait."
Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, called the law "a major step toward achieving full parity of insurance coverage" and treating addiction the same as other illnesses.
Larry Downs, the medical society's executive director, also praised the treatment aspects of the new law. "This is something we have been calling for for years. There is no reason (treatment) should not be covered."
Downs defended the criticism of the bill's prescription limits "to make sure the voice of the patients could be heard."
"We asked for amendments to allow doctors who are front-line with people in pain, to add some flexibility and medical judgement, to help patients recovering from major surgery and trauma."
Susan K. Livio may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook