Profile: Overseer of Obamacare in NJ-NY Region has Roots in Garden State
College of New Jersey grad’s varied career path led to post as Health and Human Services regional director
Who she is: Jackie Cornell-Bechelli
What she does: She has held the post of Region II Director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since August of this year.
Hometown: Raised in Rahway, Cornell-Bechelli currently lives in Ewing. She commutes by train to New York City, where her office is located.
Why you should know about her: Cornell-Bechelli oversees continuing federal efforts to implement the Affordable Care Act in the region, which encompasses New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She serves as a liaison between Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell and state and local governments.
She will be working with various stakeholders to enroll more people during the second open enrollment period for buying health insurance through the federally operated marketplace.
In addition, her department is responsible for a wide range of social and health services, including Head Start, which provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parental involvement services.
From healthcare to politics and back: Cornell-Bechelli’s first job was with Planned Parenthood, where an internship led her to interrupt her path toward an academic career to instead become a health educator.
“What was really motivating to me was the stories that were coming into our health centers, the stories I was hearing on campuses, where I was doing work,” Cornell-Bechelli said, adding that students and young adults were being affected by policies promoting abstinence-only education that were enacted by officials “who were so far removed from the women it was affecting, so it was a very organic thing for me to see the intersections of healthcare and policy.”
She worked with Planned Parenthood for seven years, working on New Jersey state policy issues. She then worked in rapid succession for the Democratic National Committee during the 2010 congressional midterm elections; for New Jersey Citizen Action; for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, first as New Jersey state director, then overseeing efforts in the Philadelphia suburbs of Pennsylvania; and then as outreach director for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th). After Holt announced his decision not to run for re-election, Cornell-Bechelli applied for the Health and Human Services position.
Blurred lines: Cornell-Bechelli said her jobs in health education, public policy, and politics are not as separate as they may appear.
“To me they’re not distinctive – they’re different ways to effect change for people,” she said.
Her mission: She cites Burwell’s management principles of “impact, prioritization and relationships.”
This means that all of her work is focused on the impact it will have on people. She said her work with the Obama campaign helps her with prioritization, since she had to analyze what resources were available and where they would be best deployed. In building relationships, Cornell-Bechelli said she aims to cross the political aisle and work across different branches of government.
“There’s no progressive version or conservative version of how you deal with the threat of Ebola, right?” she said. “At the end of the day, people are concerned with what services are available to them, how can they access them, how can they be affordable, and how can they be of the highest quality.”
Making government accessible: Cornell-Bechelli wants people to be able to enter an office at any level of government and be able to access the services they’re eligible for. She cited the example of Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, who has made sure that city hall workers were trained in how to sign up residents for health insurance.
“To everyday people, government is one big entity,” Cornell-Bechelli said. “What we can do is help meet them where they’re at.”
ACA paperwork: An immediate goal is working with people who haven’t filed the correct paperwork to maintain their marketplace insurance coverage. Cornell-Bechelli said they are working with local organizations to reach out to individual residents. “We’re taking it very seriously,” she said.
Her advice for New Jerseyans already enrolled in ACA insurance: With the fall-winter open enrollment period set to start on Nov. 15, people whose income or family situations have changed since last year should check to see if their eligibility for marketplace subsidies to reduce the cost of insurance have changed.
She also noted the importance of checking whether their doctors are covered by their plan or by another plan available on the marketplace. She said plan information may be posted a week before the enrollment period begins.
Small business changes: New Jersey mall-business owners will be able to look at available plans before individuals, and before their counterparts in most other states, since New Jersey was chosen as one of several “early adapter” states for the Small Business Health Options Program, also known as SHOP. The program has undergone an upgrade from its first year, when it wasn’t available online and was administered by insurers.
“I think the online functionality is going to be really fantastic, both for the employee and for the small business owner,” Cornell-Bechelli said.
She plans to work with businesses to inform the public about the insurance options available through the ACA, as well as addressing broader health topics like wellness and prevention. “They’re trusted in their communities,” she said of businesses.
Family: Her husband, Chris Bechelli, works in logistics for a heating and cooling company. They have an 18-month-old son, Lincoln.
The path not taken: Cornell-Bechelli studied literature and women’s studies as an undergraduate at The College of New Jersey and had started work on a master’s degree in literature, with a goal of getting a doctorate in women’s studies. While her work at Planned Parenthood led to her current job, she still works as a mentor for students in the college’s Women in Learning and Leadership program, which combines academic and philanthropic opportunities.
Reading and recipes: Her favorite book is Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” about four sisters who changed the course of history in the Dominican Republic. But her foremost hobby, along with playing with her son, is cooking and baking. However, her tight schedule can leave her with few ingredients to work with. “I feel like lately, it’s more like an episode of ‘Chopped,’ right? Like, I have half a banana, some stale cereal, what am I going to make for dinner for myself and my husband?”