Governor Christie Signs Bill Aimed at Combating Opioid Abuse

On February 15, 2017 Governor Christie signed into law P.L. 2017, c. 28, Senate No. 3 designed to curb the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic facing the State of New Jersey.  The scope of the overwhelming opioid epidemic facing the State was demonstrated by the bipartisan support the bill received.  Indeed, the bill passed with virtually no opposition, passing with a Senate vote of 33-0 and an Assembly vote of 64-1 with 5 abstentions.

The bill takes a multipronged approach to combating the ongoing opioid crisis by: (1) requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for both inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment; (2) limiting the amounts of opioid medications practitioners can prescribe; and (3) imposing additional continuing education requirements on the medical community.

In regard to insurance coverage, the bill requires insurers to provide 180 days per plan year of inpatient and outpatient treatment of substance abuse disorders when determined to be medically necessary by the patient’s physician, psychologist or psychiatrist without the need for any prior authorization.  The bill further prohibits any retrospective or concurrent review of medical necessity for the first 28 days of inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment.

Thereafter, inpatient treatment may be subject to concurrent review which cannot be initiated more frequently than two week intervals.  However, the law provides the patient with both internal and external review processes on an expedited basis if the insurer’s review determines treatment is no longer medically necessary.  Moreover, even if the insurer’s determination is upheld on appeal, the patient cannot be discharged until after all appeal rights have been exhausted and the insurer must provide benefits through the date following the final determination.

Conversely, outpatient treatment after the initial 28 days may be subject to retroactive review of medical necessity by the insurer.  Nevertheless, it is not until the first 180 days of either inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment has passed that further treatment can be subject to preauthorization by the insurer.

The bill further limits initial prescriptions of opioid medications to a five day supply which shall be for the lowest effective dose of the immediate-release opioid medication.  Prior to issuing an initial prescription a practitioner is required to: (1) take and document a thorough medical history, including the patient’s past experience with non-opioid medication and pain management techniques, and the patient’s substance abuse history; (2) conduct and document a physical examination of the patient; (3) develop a treatment plan focused on determining the cause of the patient’s pain; and (4) access relevant information from the Prescription Monitoring Program.

Four days after the issuance of an initial opioid prescription, a practitioner may issue a subsequent prescription for up to a thirty day supply. However, such prescriptions may be written only if: (1) the patient’s prior prescription for the opioid drug was given within the last year; (2) the practitioner determines the subsequent prescription is necessary and appropriate to the patient’s treatment needs and documents his or her rationale for that determination; and (3) the practitioner determines and documents that the subsequent prescription does not present an undue risk of abuse, addiction or diversion.

Moreover, if a third prescription for opioid medication is given the practitioner must enter into a “pain management agreement” with the patient.  The “pain management agreement” is a written contract executed between practitioner and patient which is designed to: (1) prevent the development of physical or psychological dependence; (2) document both the practitioner’s and patient’s understanding of the pain management plan; (3) establish the patient’s rights in regard to treatment  and obligations associated with the use and storage of opioid medications; (4) identify the specific medications and other modes of treatment that are included in the pain management plan; (5) specify the measurers the practitioner may employ to ensure the patient’s compliance, including random specimen screens and pill counts; and (6) establish the process for terminating the agreement, and consequences if the practitioner has reason to believe the patient is not complying with the agreement.

Furthermore, the bill attempts to ensure that patients taking these medications are doing so with informed consent.  To do so, prior to issuing the first and third prescriptions of an opioid drug a practitioner is required to discuss with the patient, or the patient’s parent or guardian if under 18 years of age, the risks associated with the drugs being prescribed.  This discussion must include, but is not limited to: (1) the reasons the prescription is necessary; (2) alternative treatments that may be available; and (3) the risks of addiction and overdoes associated with the drugs being prescribed, including that: (i) opioids are highly addictive, even when taken as prescribed; (ii) that there is a risk of developing physical of psychological dependence on the drug; and (iii) that taking more opioids than prescribed, or mixing opioids with alcohol, sedatives or benzodiazepines can result in fatal respiratory depression.  A record of these discussions must be documented in the patient’s chart.

There are additional requirements on practitioners treating patients requiring long term treatment, exceeding three months, from opioid medications.  Under those circumstances, the practitioner must: (1) at a minimum of every three months, review and document the course of treatment, any new information regarding the source of the pain and the patient’s progress toward treatment objectives; (2) determine and document whether the patient is experiencing problems associated with physical and psychological dependence prior to each prescription renewal; (3) periodically make and document reasonable efforts, unless clinically contraindicated, to stop the use of opioid medications by attempting other medications or treatments to reduce the potential for abuse or dependency; (4) review Prescription Drug Monitoring information; and (5) monitor compliance with the pain management agreement.

Finally, the bill adds additional continuing education requirements on practitioners.  Specifically, to meet their continuing education requirements practitioners are now required to complete at least one credit per compliance period of educational programs on topics or issues concerning prescription of opioid medications including responsible prescribing, alternatives for managing and treating pain and the risks and signs of opioid abuse, addiction and diversion.  These continuing education requirements apply to physicians, physician assistants, nurses, advanced practice nurses, optometrists, dentists and pharmacists.

The new bill is a significant attempt to curb the opioid epidemic facing New Jersey.  While it remains to be seen how effective these attempts will be, if success is shown, given Governor’s Christie’s recent appointment by President Trump as the chairman to the White House’s commission to combat America’s opioid problem, this bill may form the basis for federal attempts to combat this nationwide epidemic.