The now-infamous photo of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and family enjoying a beach closed to the public said a lot about Christie’s hugely inflated sense of entitlement.
But it also said something about the current state of health care politics. Christie was holding up the New Jersey state budget — and shutting down state beaches — over his demand that Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurer, put $300 million of its reserves into a state opioid treatment program. With that, Christie was championing the one health care cause that has become safe for everyone, including conservative Republicans.
But he wanted to fund it with money from Blue Cross rather than through a state budget appropriation. With no political capital going into this budget battle, and less after the beach expose, the unpopular New Jersey governor failed in that effort. But his willingness to go to the mat over it shows how the opioid epidemic has become not just a scourge, but also a big political bargaining chip.
In Washington, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is working to win votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act by adding $43 billion in special funds to treat opioid addiction. At the same time, the Senate’s health care bill would dramatically slash Medicaid funding, to the detriment of the poor, the elderly, and children. While senators seeking more money for treatment as part of the health care bill are sincere, their leaders are blatantly open to using the extra opioid money to pay them off.
The toll of opioid abuse is undisputed: According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, drug overdose due to opioid addiction is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. It’s also a heartbreaking “everywhere problem,” class-blind and colorblind. That makes it popular with politicians of all persuasions, including Republicans.
“If you ask people of color about it, you’ll hear a lot of anger about their contention that their kids were dying from opioid and similar addictions for a long time, but it was not addressed by the political power structure until it hit white neighborhoods,” said Philip W. Johnston, the former head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and a federal health care administrator during the Clinton presidency who now runs a health care consulting company. “Maybe the gun issue will become popular if the killing begins to invade white areas,” he added.
Whether or not you believe there would be less interest in opioid addiction if it didn’t cut across income lines and affect many whites, fighting it comes down to money and how much public funding is committed to it. What states are willing to kick into it is an important piece of it. In New Jersey, where Christie made the opioid fight a personal cause, he wanted an insurer to pick up the costs. Meanwhile, you can’t separate the battle against opioid addiction from federal Medicaid funding, which Christie is also trying to do.
Christie heads the bipartisan opioid commission created by President Trump, where at the commission’s first meeting, some appointees decried the Senate’s effort to cut Medicaid. “We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think what’s happening over in Congress regarding issues of health care matters to this issue,” said Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat. “If we make it harder and more expensive for people to get health care coverage, it’s going to make this crisis worse.” But as of last week, Christie was unwilling to lobby against the GOP proposal to reduce Medicaid funding. Taking a wait-and-see approach about a cut in funding that could seriously harm New Jersey residents, he said, “I’m not going to go down to Capitol Hill and pour gasoline on myself and set myself on fire.”
As it turned out, he got burned even more badly just by sitting on that beach.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
Article Provided By