A WCBS Special Report Series, By Marla Diamond

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Today in our special report series Killer Tide: The Opioid Epidemic, WCBS reporter Marla Diamond examines The Mental Health Reform Act and what local leaders are doing to help addicts find treatment.

Passed at the very end of President Barack Obama’s term, it was the first major mental health care legislation in a decade. It’s part of the $6 billion 21st Century Cures Act, which provides $1 billion to tackle the heroin and opioid crisis in America.

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Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn, was one of its prime sponsors.

“It will force insurance companies to cover more addiction treatment and more mental health treatment,” he told Diamond. “It will provide more cooperation between physical health, mental health and addiction medicine. It’s a bill that’s going to result in hundreds of millions of dollars in new care being authorized for people with addiction.”

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The bill also includes $1 billion for emergency opioid treatment. It’s one major step forward, but Murphy says he fears what might happen if the Republicans repeal Obamacare.

“So The Mental Health Reform Act that we passed at the end of last year — it says insurance companies have to cover more mental health treatment. Well that doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have insurance,” he said. “Four-hundred thousand people in this state, Connecticut, will potentially lose their insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. That means they lose all coverage for addiction, all coverage for mental health. So as proud as I am of what we did at the end of last year to expand mental health treatment in a bipartisan way, we would lose all that ground and more if the Affordable Care Act goes away.”

The proposal would roll back the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare that enabled thousands of the uninsured to get treatment.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was one of the few Republican governors to sign onto the expansion, as he focuses on ending the opioid crisis.

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“Think about this: Last year in New Jersey, 1,600 people died of an opiate overdose. That’s four times the number of murders in New Jersey and three times the number of deaths by automobile accident. That’s incredible,” he said. “Too many people are hiding in the shadows, families are hiding in the shadows, they don’t know where to go, where to get help. So what we want to try to do is to keep talking about it more. This is a disease, it’s no different than cancer, or diabetes or heart disease. People need to come forward and get the tools they need to deal with their disease.”

Christie has said he supports replacing the open-ended federal entitlement with set amounts of money that would go to the states.

But Raymond Castro, senior analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank, says that could hurt the legacy-building goals Christie is trying to achieve.

“It’s a bad idea, because funding would no longer be guaranteed to the states,” he said. “And they’re not only block-granting Medicaid, they’re also setting it at a level that will generate major savings at the federal level, which means those costs are going to be shifted to New Jersey.”

Castro says the bulk of people seeking drug treatment will be left out in the cold if the Medicaid expansion is cut.

“They’re going to have another problem, because they’re going to have a pre-existing condition. So they’re not going to be able to afford private insurance either,” he said.

Those without insurance get a fraction of the treatment the insured get, and often it’s not enough.

“I don’t have a job anymore, and I’m addicted to drugs again, and there’s no more money, and I’m stuck right in the spiral once again,” one man said.

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As our series continues next week, Diamond will share the story of one man’s struggle to end his heroin addiction.