Mariel S. Hufnagel: Written Testimony, FY 2020-2021 Budget Listening Session 

For Immediate Release

New Jersey Department of Human Services

FY 2020-2021 Budget Listening Session (December 4, 2019)

Mariel S. Hufnagel : Written Testimony

Good morning Commissioner Johnson, and esteemed panel. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this listening session, and thank you for taking the time to listen to your stakeholders including consumers in your budget process.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel. I am a New Jersey citizen – a voter, taxpayer and a Monmouth County homeowner. I am a wife, a foster parent, a dog mom, the Executive Director of a NJ-based non-profit organization, and a masters level graduate from Kean University. I am also a woman proudly living in long-term recovery from a mental health and substance use disorder – which for me means that I have been alcohol and drug free for over 12-years since May 2007.

Just 13 years ago, I was a homeless prostitute, living in an abandoned car — heavily addicted to alcohol and drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin. I believed myself to be both worthless and hopeless. Addiction hijacked all of my teenage years, and left me bankrupt – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I stand here in front of you today full of hope and knowing that I am worthy. I tell my story so openly – one that others might think should be shrouded in secrecy and shame – because I think it’s important for you to see where my addiction took me, but also where my recovery has brought me. Oftentimes those, like me, who end up on the street as a result of addiction and mental health issues are dismissed as “hopeless” and not worth investing in with time, energy and/or dollars. Hopefully my story and experience can destigmatize yours and others viewpoints.

I am not the exception, my story is not extraordinary or miraculous – according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are 20.2 million Americans that identify as living in recovery from an alcohol/drug use problem. So, one might ask, “How/why do people recover?”

I received life-saving treatment and then continued through a continuum of care that included recovery support services (peer support, sober living, ongoing therapy, psychotropic medication, ect) and had access to public assistance benefits such as food stamps and medicaid. Because of this, I was able to acquire safe housing, stable employment, continued education and adequate healthcare – which addressed my social determinants of health thus increasing my likelihood of sustaining my recovery. Although the treatment I received was vital – it was just the beginning, one might call it recovery initiation – it was these ongoing services which helped me rebuild my life. Recovery happens in the community.

Although some people, primarily those with high recovery capital respond well to the acute care model, many individuals, primarily those with low recovery capital do not and need recovery support services to maintain long-term recovery. High recovery capital includes housing, employment, healthcare and family and social networks. People with low recovery capital often experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, societal marginalization, and/or poor physical health. Recovery should not only be accessible to the privileged.

Addiction is not a moral issue – this is not my opinion, but fact based on science – addiction is a chronic treatable disease. With this knowledge, how can we continue to treat addiction acutely?

As we all know, alcohol and drug addiction – not just opioid addiction – is a real live epidemic, right here in New Jersey. So much so, that I am sure that is has impacted everyone here directly or indirectly – maybe you have suffered yourself, or you have a family member, friend, or co-worker suffering; or maybe you have a friend who lost a loved one, or a place of employment that was robbed, as a result of this disease. I have no doubts, that somehow we all have been affected by this disease. Addiction is enslaving our citizens and draining our resources. It is our responsibility – yours and mine – to find a better way and do things differently.

I know my story is powerful, however I also know that my story is not enough. Stories change hearts, but, number change minds, so I want to provide some. First, I want to express my gratitude for the continued support and increased awareness and funding surrounding addiction. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to what in my opinion, are mis-allocated funds. New Jersey spends over 11% of its state budget to clean up the consequences of alcohol and drug addiction. If we shifted our focus instead, to treating and supporting the individual holistically we can save lives as well as money. For every dollar spent on substance use in New Jersey, 97 cents is spent on the consequences of untreated addiction – only 3 cents are spent on prevention, treatment and recovery support services. Additionally of those 3 cents, prevention and treatment are funded significantly more so than recovery support services. Not only is this is a completely unacceptable, fiscally is does not make sense.

Of course more money devoted to addiction would be great – however with only a limited understand the complex and multifaceted budgetary needs in the State of New Jersey and of this Department – I am not asking for MORE, I am simply asking for the funds we do have and are already spending to be allocated in a more effective manner. I believe we need to shift some of the prevention and treatment funding and more aggressively funded harm reduction, law enforcement deflection and diversion programs, medication assisted treatment and recovery support services. I know there will be tremendous pushback here, but obviously our current funding mechanisms and structure is not making a significant enough impact to stem the tide of addiction – so why wouldn’t we try something different?

Addiction impacts every Department of the State and every division in the Department of Human Services – particularly mental health, developmental disabilities, housing, and health. I guarantee that by investing in recovery, you would be making investing in all New Jerseyans, our economy, and our long-term wellbeing as a state. I ask you to keep this in mind, when you make your budget decisions this year. And I would be happy to be a resource to all of you at any time. Thank you for your time, and wishing all good things to all of you and your families this holiday season.

Respectfully submitted by: Mariel S. Hufnagel,