Health Commish Says NJ is Moving Medical Marijuana Program Forward

Some health issues have come to the forefront of New Jersey news recently. Hackensack University Medical Center is suspending its kidney transplant program because of higher than average death rates and the federal government found 28 deficiencies in the program. Medical marijuana is also coming to the Garden State with the first permit for an Alternative Treatment Center to begin growing marijuana. Commissioner Mary O’Dowd of the Department of Health and Senior Services spoke with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider about the various topics.

O’Dowd said the Department of Health became aware of the situation at HUMC with the kidney transplants and worked with the federal government, which regulates transplant programs across the country. She said the department has inspected and visited Hackensack’s program at least 17 times. “We’ve been helping them get up to speed and make improvements as they move forward and I think that they have made some progress, but will continue to make additional improvements,” she explained.

While O’Dowd didn’t offer insight into what happened, she said the incident shows the ongoing need to monitor the quality of healthcare facilities. In addition to the inspections and investigations, she said “we also have a number of report cards where we report publicly on a number of different quality indicators so both providers can see where they need to improve, but consumers also have a tool on how to choose a high quality provider.”

Hackensack University Medical Center is also in the process of opening a full hospital in Westwood on the site of the former Pascack Valley Hospital with a for-profit corporation. O’Dowd said to date, the department hasn’t seen a change in quality in any of the state’s hospitals that converted to for-profit ownership.

“We continue to monitor all our hospitals in New Jersey — whether they’re for-profit or not-for-profit — on quality, metrics as well as financial indicators to make sure their quality of care is up to speed as well as their financial health and I think that it’s irrelevant their profit status,” O’Dowd said. “It’s their mission and their dedication to quality care and providing access to the community that’s the most important.”

O’Dowd recently testified on healthcare reform. She said Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed state budget includes almost a billion dollars worth of subsidies to hospitals to help with charity care. “We have made a number of reforms to our charity care formula that we believe make it more equitable so that if hospitals are providing more care to the uninsured, they’re going to get an increase in their subsidy and if they have a decrease in the amount of care they provide to the uninsured, they’ll have a decrease in their subsidy,” she said.

Medical marijuana is coming to New Jersey. O’Dowd said this week the Health Department announced the first permit for an Alternative Treatment Center to grow marijuana in Montclair. She said the group has said it will take three to four months until the product is available and that there are already more than 100 physicians throughout the state who have voluntarily registered to be part of the program.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that this program will be run with integrity throughout the state of New Jersey,” O’Dowd said. She said appropriate and thorough background checks are being conducted on all the owners and operators of the organizations. She said the department is also ensuring they have the proper security and inventory control measures in place before beginning to grow and dispense the product. They also have to pass inspections and prove thorough reviews of of their employees.

O’Dowd said her department is doing everything it can to ensure the program in New Jersey does not come under the scrutiny of the federal government like other states have experienced. “We have a concern that we don’t want to look like those other states and that’s why we’ve made all the other rules in our program to ensure that does not happen,” she said.