Updated Feb. 15, 2017 6:01 p.m. ET4 COMMENTS
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Wednesday curtailing the quantity of opioid pills doctors can prescribe for acute pain, a restriction he said is necessary to curb the state?s addiction crisis.
The new law lowers the limit on initial prescriptions for opioids to a maximum five-day supply from 30 days for acute pain and directs practitioners to prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioid drugs. Mr. Christie, a Republican, has pledged to spend his final year as governor battling the state?s heroin and opioid epidemic.
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?This is not something that?s going to turn around overnight because of what we?ve done today,? Mr. Christie said after signing the bill in Trenton. ?Addiction treatment is a process. We?re starting down a road that may take us five to 10 years to really see marked results that are consistent. But we?ve got to start the journey.?
As part of the bill, state-regulated health-care plans are required to provide unlimited benefits for in-network addiction treatment for 180 days without prior authorization. If services at a facility that is in the insurer?s network aren?t immediately available, network exceptions must be provided to ensure admission within 24 hours.
In his annual state address last month, Mr. Christie called for lawmakers to pass the new mandates within 30 days and pledged to sign the legislation the day it landed on his desk. The bill arrived 36 days later, after passing a final vote in the state?s lower chamber Wednesday afternoon.
The bill received wide bipartisan support, with 97 lawmakers voting in favor of the legislation, one opposing it and 12 abstaining.
Medical professionals had opposed the bill?s provision limiting opioid prescriptions, saying it risked harming patients with legitimate pain-management needs. The law?s opioid prescription limitations don?t apply to cancer patients, people in hospice or residents of long-term care facilities.
Medical Society of New Jersey Chief Executive Larry Downs said many patients recovering from upper torso surgeries such as mastectomies need pain medication to heal. Requiring patients to return to a doctor?s office after five days would be unfairly burdensome.
?People need to breathe and move after surgery in order to get their systems functioning and make sure they don?t get pneumonia,? Mr. Downs said. ?In many cases, that?s not a five-day issue.?
Despite its criticism of the limits on prescriptions, the Medical Society of New Jersey testified before lawmakers in favor of the overall bill because of its other provisions expanding insurance coverage for addiction treatment.
?Doctors recognize that there?s a huge addiction issue in this state and in this country that needs to be addressed,? Mr. Downs said.
The law?s new insurance mandates affect a minority of New Jersey residents, applying only to those covered by state-regulated, individual and small-employer plans. They don?t apply to self-funded plans, such as those offered by most large companies, nor will they affect Medicaid or Medicare.
The New Jersey Association of Health Plans, a nonprofit association, didn?t take a position on the legislation. President Wardell Sanders said he expects the law?s insurance mandates to have ?a significant impact in cost, although it?s hard to measure. We?re not aware of any state that?s done anything quite like this.?
Mr. Christie said the costs are difficult to calculate because it is unclear how many people will take advantage of the expanded access to treatment.
?Whatever the cost is of this, it?s certainly less than 1,600 lives a year,? he said, referring to the number of New Jersey residents who died from fatal overdoses in 2015. ?I?m not someone who does mandates lightly. But we have no choice but to do this and to do this the right way.?
Stephen Crystal, a Rutgers University professor who specializes in health-services research, said the efficacy of the new insurance mandates is unclear because many in need of opioid-addiction treatment are uninsured or are receiving Medicaid or Medicare.
?I think it?s a very good step, but it?s only a partial solution to the problem,? Mr. Crystal said.
Corrections & Amplifications
An estimated 1,600 New Jersey residents died of fatal overdoses in 2015. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated 2016. (Feb. 15, 2017)
Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com