By MICHAEL CATALINI
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie's mission for his final year in office is saving lives by tackling New Jersey's opioid drug epidemic, he told lawmakers during his state of the state address Tuesday.
Christie devoted the majority of Tuesday's speech to address the drug crisis, with a promise to limit the supply of opioid drugs doctors could prescribe, a request for lawmakers to pass a measure to require insurers to pay for at least six months of drug treatment, and also changed rules to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to be considered children to cut down on waiting lists for treatment beds.
Nearly 1,600 people in New Jersey died from drug overdoses in 2015, an increase of about 20 percent over 2014, according to data from the state medical examiner's office. Most of those came from opioids, including heroin and fentanyl.
"I will not have the blood of addicted New Jerseyans on my hands because we waited to act," Christie said. "I will not willingly watch another 1,600 of our citizens die and watch their families mourn and suffer."
Christie told the story of a state worker who attended a candlelight vigil last month to mark her son's 10 1/2 months of sobriety. Two days later, the 23-year-old man was found dead of an overdose in mom Pam Garozzo's car, Christie said.
"This is the face of the epidemic of addiction that is ravages the state and our people," Christie said after introducing Garozzo and her husband to a standing ovation.
Christie has expanded drug courts and signed measures that include expanding the use of the overdose-prevention drug naloxone and a prescription monitoring program.
Among Christie's policy proposals outlined Tuesday as he painted a picture connecting drug addiction to the biggest issues in the state: education, public safety and the economy:
--He said that he was having his attorney general put together regulations to require that doctors only initially prescribe a five-day supply of opioid drugs for acute pain.
--He called on federal lawmakers to change rules that don't allow Medicaid money to be spent on inpatient substance abuse treatment in facilities with more than 16 beds.
--He called on state lawmakers to approve a change to require insurers to pay for at least six months of drug treatment.
--Christie also announced a new phone and online helpline at reachnj.gov and 1-844-ReachNJ.
"This is perhaps the single most important issue to every New Jersey family we will have the chance to address while I am governor," Christie said. "During our campaign for president, it was often said that we were the loudest voice discussing this challenge for our nation. Now, as I stand here in New Jersey in my final year as governor, I want us to make New Jersey the example for our entire nation on how to compassionately and effectively help families going through this personal hell."
The speech comes as Donald Trump finishes filling out his administration without a spot for Christie, one of the first major Republicans to endorse him after he ended his own campaign. The governor said he always planned to serve out his full term, which ends in 2018.
The speech also comes as the race to succeed the governor is getting underway, and as Christie's job approval ratings have hit record lows.
Monday, Christie signed legislation adding 20 new judges to New Jersey's Superior Court system and boosting spending by $9.3 million to pay for that expansion.
The judges are needed to handle an anticipated rise in court activity caused by a major overhaul of the state's bail system that took effect Jan. 1.
Also Monday, the state senate's Judiciary Committee approved 12 judicial nominees. Tuesday, they’re expected to get final approval. That would bring the number of judges statewide to 429, reducing New Jersey's judicial vacancy rate to its lowest in a decade.
The 20 new judges will boost the state's complement of judges to 463. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner will decide where they are assigned.