Booker discusses proposed law to aid addiction recovery for incarcerated

Bill would allow health coverage for recovery programs in prison

Emily Liu/The Sun
The Camden County Correctional Facility was the setting for Booker and other officials to discuss the proposed law on Aug. 28.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker visited the Camden County Correctional Facility on Aug. 28 to discuss barriers to recovery from substance use among incarcerated individuals.

His visit was part of a roundtable on the bipartisan, bicameral Rehabilitation and Recovery During Incarceration Act. Also present were representatives from the Medication for Opioid Use Disorder Navigators, Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen, Camden County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash, county warden Karen Taylor and the county’s director of corrections, David Owens.

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According to a press release, the legislation would allow Medicaid and CHIP coverage for mental-health and substance-use services in prisons. It would require a state to reinvest funds in technology and data sharing between state Medicaid programs, jails, prisons and community providers to expand access to those services.

Inmates are currently excluded from Medicaid coverage, so treatment for substance use is not covered during imprisonment.

Rachel Haroz, division head of Toxicology and Addiction Medicine at Cooper Hospital and an attendee at the roundtable, emphasized that addiction is a chronic illness that changes the way a person thinks and responds, thus the need for coverage.

“We have to treat it medically like we do all other chronic diseases and recognize it as such,” she explained. “Diabetes isn’t illegal, and hypertension isn’t illegal, but drug use is illegal, so it carries with it a lot of legal consequences that really are just more stumbling blocks for recovery.

“If you have someone with diabetes and they ate cake, because sometimes they’re going to eat cake, would you take their insulin away?” she asked. “You wouldn’t take their insulin … That would be absurd. But that’s what we do.”

County prisoner Colleen Duca has been sober for two years. She started a reentry program that began after a previous release from prison was followed by an overdose. She was able to continue treatment after returning to jail.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Your life is completely different. You always wanted to be like a normal person and you couldn’t. And then because of that, you feel inadequate. You’ll never be just like everybody else, but this is amazing. It’s amazing.”

The importance of such treatments is reflected in the county budget; Commissioner Jeff Nash noted that corrections is the county’s most expensive appropriation. Since 2019, it has spent $663,717 on Suboxone, $528,510 on Sublocade and $87,959 on Vivitrol, medications used to treat opioid-use disorder. Sublocade, a once-a-month treatment, costs $1,800 per individual.

“We take parks, health, roads, corrections (but) the number-one cost of the county is corrections,” Nash pointed out. “It is an extraordinary expense … If we can get reimbursement for these types of medications while the residents are here, that would be an enormous savings for Camden County.”

Warden Taylor highlighted some other barriers to recovery.

“We always say giving the medication is the easy part,” she observed. “We have to provide counsel, group therapy, housing. There’s a (number) of things that the population needs in order to make it. Take away those barriers and the individuals are able to work with the program, but if I can’t give someone housing, it makes it difficult.”

Other issues that roundtable participants raised included navigating the legal system, not having appropriate support after leaving jail and reentry programs.

Booker’s stop at the correctional facility was among visits he makes to meet with constituents in each of the state’s 21 counties.

“We should be a society that recognizes that everyone has dignity, and making a mistake should not be a life sentence,” he said. “There should be a pathway to redemption, and this represents that value in our society, that one mistake doesn’t mean that you lose your humanity.’

The senator also praised the county’s effort to prioritize recovery.

“Here is actually something working – stop the cycle of recidivism, stop the cycle of addiction and empower (individuals) them in their own communities,” said Booker. It’s a public safety bonanza they’re showing here, but the challenge is taking this point of light and making it not the exception, but the rule.”

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