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March 02, 2023

Camden County to bolster mental health services, addiction treatment with money from opioid settlement

A mobile buprenorphine program will provide medically-assisted treatment to people via vans. Narcan kits will be given to anyone released from the hospital after an overdose

Government Addiction
Camden County Opioid Settlement Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Camden County will use the first $1.2 million it receives from the national opioid settlement with Johnson & Johnson and three drug distributors to boost mental health services and expand access to medically-assisted opioid treatment.

The initial $1.2 million that Camden County receives from the national opioid settlement will be used to pair mental health providers with at-risk youth, create a mobile buprenorphine program and distribute Narcan to overdose victims, among other efforts to boost mental heal and addiction services. 

The funds come from New Jersey's $641 million portion of the multi-state agreement with Johnson & Johnson and three drug distributors accused of fueling the opioid epidemic. Camden County will receive nearly $32 million over the next 20 years.

"This is a step in the right direction when it comes to cleaning up the mess these corporations created with the opioid epidemic," said Louis Cappelli Jr., director of the Camden County Board of Commissioners. "Providing adequate resources to those struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorder is the key to healing the wounds left by the opioid crisis and together, with the right programming, we can create a healthier community." 

The bulk of the money will be invested into expanding mental health services throughout the county. The Board of Commissioners said want to ensure people receive follow-up care after they are released from a mental health facility or a hospitalization caused by a mental health issue. 

These interventions, which include home visits, phone calls and other wellness checks, assess the former patients' well-being and offer support as they recover from mental health crises. According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, follow-ups "ensure continuity of care" and can help preserve emergency department resources. 

Youth who are suspended or expelled from Camden County schools due to mental health or behavioral issues will be paired with licensed mental health professionals at no cost to their families. These mental health providers will evaluate the students and clear them to return to the classroom. 

The number of high school students experiencing mental health crises has risen sharply in recent years, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This increase has helped to overwhelm New Jersey emergency departments. Virtua Health in South Jersey has recorded a 26% increase in mental health consultations for patients age 17 and younger, reported.

"It's becoming clearer that our young people are experiencing a mental health crisis unlike ever before," said Commissioner Virginia Betteridge, liaison to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. "Several factors have contributed to this issue, but the last three years of the pandemic have certainly taken its toll on youth state- and nationwide. We are determined to provide top quality support to every child and teen here in Camden County who are struggling with their mental health." 

The new mental health navigators will part of the Project SAVE program in the Camden County Municipal Courts. The program, introduced in 2018, uses social workers to provide early intervention to substance use disorder. Mental health navigators will work with people experiencing both mental health issues and substance abuse. 

Last year, 2,893 New Jersey residents died from suspected drug overdoses; Camden County had the second-most overdose deaths, according to the Attorney General's Office

The county will begin an experimental program to provide buprenorphine, a medication that treats opioid dependence, via outreach vans. The program is similar to New Jersey's mobile methadone program, which has provided medically-assisted treatment for opioid addiction to incarcerated people since 2017. 

The van program provides care to people who may be unable or unwilling to travel to traditional spaces to find addiction treatment. Philadelphia is using a portion of its settlement funding to start its first mobile methadone service. 

Camden County also will begin providing take-home naloxone kits to overdose and substance abuse patients who are released from emergency rooms. Naloxone, a nasal spray medication sold under the brand name Narcan, can reverse an opioid overdose.

In February, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel recommended approving an over-the-counter form of naloxone in hopes of expanding its accessibility and distribution. It remains unclear whether the FDA will approve naloxone as an over-the-counter medication, though the agency frequently approves the recommendations of its advisory panel, the New York Times reported. 

Camden County will provide Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education to middle and high school students. The NOPE program, which works to diminish the frequency of overdose deaths, began in Palm Beach County, Florida in 2004 and has since expanded to other parts of the country. 

The NOPE program comes on the heels of Camden County installing Naloxboxes — kits containing four doses of naloxone — at all public and parochial schools last year. 

The Naloboxes effort was a response to the death of a 12-year-old boy who was found unresponsive on a school bus at Gloucester Township Elementary School in January 2022. A school nurse performed CPR on the child before emergency responders showed up with Narcan. The boy was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.