HEALTH

Budget hearing focuses on maternal health and opioid epidemic

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

Medical Marijuana and the opioid crisis were at the top of Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal’s priorities list for fiscal year 2020, as was a new initiative to support maternal and infant health, especially for women of color.

“It’s important to remember that New Jersey has one of the nation’s highest maternal and infant health disparities. This is an administration that recognizes that that disparity is rooted in institutional and structural racism,” he said. “The department has increased outreach, support and services to women of color to improve health and birth outcomes.”

What isn’t a budget concern this year is charity care, which has stabilized, noted Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo.

“We kept charity care at the same level of $262 million,” Sarlo said. “I could remember sitting here and charity care, budget after budget, was our number one big issue that we’re dealing with. Hospitals were lining up to see members. I’m not seeing that this year.”

“The charity care requirement has gone down significantly because of the Affordable Care Act,” Elnahal replied. “And so the need to defend this act will directly have a budget impact on the need for charity care because hospitals would otherwise see more uninsured and underinsured individuals who would require charity care. So it’s absolutely imperative that we defend the ACA.”

One hospital came up several times during questioning: University Hospital.

“In the last year or so, there have been several headlines, an ‘F’ from Leapfrog,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

Leapfrog is a hospital rating system. The headlines included three infant deaths this past fall after an infectious disease outbreak in the NICU.

“We keep open channels of communication with the acting CEO at the moment. We know that there are a lot of changes that are being implemented, including a strategic plan that is currently in the process for the hospital. We did see the request for $10 million for improvements in their emergency room,” said Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Marcela Ospina Maziarz.

A lot of time was spent on the many ways the state is battling the opioid epidemic. Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced $6 million to upgrade a severely outdated medical records system for substance use disorder treatment facilities.

“What this money will do is begin to connect those substance use disorder clinics to a broad statewide network of hospitals, other types of clinics, and those types of clinics together. So again, everybody has the same information and can make better care decisions that can be lifesaving. To know that someone just overdosed, for example, can allow them to make the right decision to save that patient’s life,” said Elnahal.

The Department of Health is asking the Legislature to approve nearly a billion dollars in funding, which is just a slight increase from what was approved last year.