New Jersey Organizing Project Sets Sights on Opioid Crisis

After successful Sandy recovery activism, locally based grassroots organization looks to tackle local drug epidemic.
By Jon Coen | Aug 28, 2019
Photo by: Shannon Duffy Participants at a recent New Jersey Organizing Project panel discussion on Ending Overdose on July 31 respond when asked how many in the room knew someone who died of a preventable overdose.

In 2017, Ocean County had 189 suspected drug related deaths, most of which involved heroin. In 2018, that number rose to 217, and this year’s early stats show no sign of it slowing. Bergen County had 129 and 157 those same years, and Ocean County has roughly half the population of Bergen. Both years, Ocean County, including our Southern Ocean communities, has had more deaths than neighboring Atlantic County.

The opioid epidemic, defined as the misuse of and addiction to opioids including prescription pain pills, heroin and fentanyl, is a national crisis that claims the lives of over 130 people every day. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died as a result of opioid overdoses. Unlike past drug epidemics, the opioid crisis has hit suburban and rural areas just as hard, if not harder, than cities. And elected officials of both parties outside urban areas are being tasked with solving it.

Ocean County has a particularly acute problem.

The opioid epidemic came into national consciousness about five years ago. But although awareness has grown, the number of deaths and Narcan administrations (the drug used to save overdose victims) in Ocean County remains steady, and higher than the national average. And that’s something the locally based New Jersey Organizing Project wants to tackle.

NJOP was formed after Superstorm Sandy. Fourth-generation Cedar Bonnet Island resident and activist Amanda Devecka-Rinear, whose own home was destroyed by Sandy, felt the working-class families who had been affected by the storm were not getting the help they needed. She found members of our community, including Sandy super-volunteer Joe Mangino, who were willing to take up the cause. They held Trenton accountable to disburse the $60 billion federal disaster relief package granted to New York and New Jersey. It was the archetype of successful grassroots activism.

“We were witnessing what was happening on the ground, compared to what (then-governor) Chris Christie was spewing from the pulpit, that everyone was home and the shore was recovered. They weren’t at all,” said Priscilla Robinson, NJOP’s lead community organizer of Economic Security and End Overdose programs.

“And It’s not about party politics. We’re happy to work with any legislators who want to help our communities and are grateful for those relationships,” she added.

Though Christie’s accountability became the group’s signature accomplishment, today NJOP has a solid record of victories.

The list of wins includes a $15 million rental assistance program and the Sandy Foreclosure Forbearance Bill extension to keep families from losing their homes. They protected survivors from fraudulent contractors, took on insurance companies, and won transparency and accountability for where the money was being spent. Then there was the $50 million NJOP had directed to survivors as “Finish Line Funds” to get them whole again. The most recent victory was New Jersey’s Clawback Freeze, relieving the pressure of struggling families who are being asked to pay back the assistance they received.

The group moved on to address preparedness for future storms and the issues of climate change and sea level rise.

But in 2017, five years after Sandy, NJOP discovered that less than 10 percent of participants in the $1.1 billion HUD program known as Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, were back in their homes. As part of its “Finish the Job” campaign and working with its sister group, the New Jersey Resource Project, NJOP surveyed some 551 households in the Jersey Shore region that had been affected by Sandy.

“Because of the questions around how the storm impacted health and family, we learned that 70 percent of respondents reported new or worsening health conditions. They had trouble getting access to healthcare services. They had issues ranging from PTSD, respiratory health and attempted suicide,” said Robinson.

What particularly caught NJOP leaders’ attention was that 20 percent expressed new or existing drug addiction.

“That was the red flag,” Robinson remembered. It stuck her particularly because she’d been dealing with drug addiction in her own family.

“My oldest sister was struggling for a long time, and thankfully with Medicaid she eventually got access to the services she needed to recover. Without it I don’t know if she would be here today, and today she is thriving,” she shared.

The effects of drug abuse kept coming up among members at NJOP meetings as well. The experience of Sandy victims was overlapping with the opioid crisis, and this became NJOP’s next cause. Robinson, a recent graduate of Stockton University, took the ball and ran with it.

“Priscilla came about during Sandy work,” said Joe Mangino, who is now on the board of directors for NJOP. “Having dealt with opioid issues in her family, she was the natural leader on this. She will make sure NJOP does what it can so those people get the treatment they need.”

Though Christie had allocated $200 million to drug addiction in 2017, the situation wasn’t getting any better. NJOP started digging and found $43 million went to advertising for the Reach NJ Hotline that depicted Christie standing with people in recovery, promoting the hotline as a success.

“The good thing about this was a lot of people called the hotline for help in finding rehab and services,” Robinson said. “The downside was people struggling with addiction were not being helped. Some of our members shared being left on hold for long periods, being guided into dead ends or transferred to rehab facilities that had months-long waiting lists.”

Again and again, NJOP found the biggest barrier was access to treatment. Fifty-six percent of those struggling with addiction are on Medicaid or have no insurance at all. The organization made protecting and defending access to Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act a priority.

“People don’t have the option of public transportation in our communities. And for people who don’t have private insurance, access to care is about 10 times harder. It’s hard to find facilities that take Medicaid and Medicare. And for people who don’t have any insurance, their only chance is charity care. We were hearing from addiction professionals that they couldn’t find anywhere with a bed available or treatment in the very towns that were most significantly affected in South Jersey.”

NJOP also knew something that the rest of the country was just learning – America’s largest pharmaceutical companies had been making billions of dollars pushing prescription pain medication. And doctors were incentivized to overprescribe them. These corporations had been putting opioids, containing the same active substance as heroin, into the hands of the public in massive quantities since the 1990s. And it created a new class of addicts.

“These drug companies had people marketing oxycodone, and if doctors met a certain quota, they were given gifts. They were basically bribing them to prescribe more pills,” said Robinson.

Locally, Manahawkin’s Dr. Liviu T. Holca pleaded guilty in May 2016 to overprescribing opiates in addition to money laundering. Although a county prosecutor recommended a year in prison, pointing out that Holca was no different than street drug dealers, Holca lost his practice and home but never did any jail time.

This week an Oklahoma judge found pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson guilty of aggressively marketing opioids to doctors and patients. The corporation has been ordered to pay the state $572 million for the damage it has caused. The decision may set the precedent for the 2,000 similar lawsuits to follow.

“While big pharma does have to be held accountable, you can’t just point the finger at these companies,” said Robinson. “There are people who legitimately rely on opioids to relieve chronic pain. And there’s such a stigma attached to it. Addiction is a disease. Even the idea of getting people services is an uphill battle. If we can get preventive services to keep people from getting HIV and hepatitis C, we can save lives.”

And just as it did with Christie, NJOP has taken Gov. Phil Murphy to task since he took office with a vow to curb the epidemic.

“He’s done some good things,” Robinson acknowledged. “He allocated $100 million to address the opioid crisis. But we’re not seeing any results. There are still record numbers of overdoses.”

She credits Murphy for eliminating a step called “prior authorization” to get people on Medicaid into treatment faster, but said it’s simply not enough.

She explained that NJOP advocates evidence-based treatment. One example is medically assisted treatment such as methadone and buprenorphine, medicines that help curb withdrawal symptoms and are proven to lead to long-term recovery.

“There just aren’t enough services and facilities in our communities. And the ones that are often don’t accept Medicaid. It’s easier to stay in recovery if it’s in our own backyard so patients can keep a job and maintain social support with loved ones.”

NJOP is working on mapping out more-efficient routes to recovery by increasing transparency and accountability.

“Organizations like ours need to hold the state accountable,” said Mangino. “When they release funds, we have to make sure they’re not being misappropriated to political allies. And that’s on either side.”

Just like with Sandy recovery, NJOP knows the money from Trenton has been allocated, but it needs to find out how it’s being spent and if it’s in an effective manner.

“We also want to make sure there is equal access for everyone in New Jersey regardless of race, gender, age or where we live,” Robinson added.

NJOP looks to move forward in the way it has always done, by finding out what works and what doesn’t, holding corporations accountable and leaning on elected officials.

“We do the work and find the best the solutions. We want to be writing the legislation and pushing it over the finish line,” Robinson said.

Learn more about NJOP’s past and present efforts at Robinson added she is always open to hear from the community, at

— Jon Coen

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