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Murphy to Name VA Leader as Head of Health Department

Gov.-elect expected to announce Shereef Elnahal, a physician with federal experience, as DOH’s new boss

Shereef  Elnahal
Dr. Shereef Elnahal

Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is expected to name a physician with an Ivy League background who is a leader at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to head New Jersey’s health department.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, a 2015 White House Fellow who has focused on healthcare quality, is expected to be tapped by Murphy later this week in a formal announcement, according to multiple sources. While Elnahal is not well-known among the Garden State’s healthcare community, his selection has generated enthusiasm among some — but not all — stakeholders.

Professor Joel Cantor, founding director of the Rutgers University Center for State Health Policy, said he didn’t know Elnahal but was impressed by his experience. The state Department of Health “has deep responsibilities related to quality and safety regulation and improvement, and he has great credentials,” Cantor said. In addition, it has been years since a physician has led the DOH, and Cantor said “that is an important credential for the position.”

Elnahal joins a growing number of cabinet appointees with federal experience, including former White House policy director Carole Johnson, whom Murphy picked to run the state Department of Human Services, and Christine Norbut Beyer, who led a national child advocacy group and is Murphy’s choice to lead the Department of Children and Families. Most cabinet selections must be confirmed by the state Senate after Murphy takes office next week.

Defending against moves in Washington, D.C.

While the governor-elect’s team declined to respond to a request for comment on Elnahal’s selection Tuesday, Murphy has stressed the need to build a strong staff that can effectively defend New Jersey against detrimental policy changes or funding cuts proposed by leaders in Washington, D.C.

Concerns about protecting the Medicaid program and elements of the Affordable Care Act, which has been under regular attack by the Trump administration, are among the priorities for Johnson, who would oversee these programs at DHS.

In New Jersey, the health department licenses hospitals, ambulatory care facilities, nursing homes and more; oversees a wide range of public health programs, many in conjunction with other state, county, and local agencies; collects data to track population health and disease; and, thanks to a reform initiated by Gov. Chris Christie last summer, now oversees the state’s system of mental health and addiction services. This work, previously handled by DHS, includes operating four state psychiatric facilities and contracting with a vast system of community-based providers.

Elnahal, one of a half-dozen members of Murphy’s core healthcare transition team, was born in Virginia and grew up, attending high school in New Jersey, before graduating summa cum laude with a B.A. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University before receiving a dual-degree M.D. and M.B.A. from Harvard University, according to his federal biography. In 2015 he was appointed as a White House Fellow and served at the VA, where he founded a significant quality initiative.

Improving care for veterans

The author of a number of articles on healthcare quality, operations, and patient safety, Elnahal developed a methodology that doubled the efficiency of a pancreatic clinic at Johns Hopkins, enabling wait times to be cut in half. He also worked as a consultant at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, and Pittsburgh’s VA hospitals, seeking to improve care for veterans and active-duty service members.

This experience appealed to Ann Twomey, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest union of nurses and other healthcare workers. “I’m pleased that (Murphy) is pulling strength from the national government,” she said.

HPAE has raised concerns about the potential impact of hospital mergers and other healthcare system consolidation, which has been rampant in recent years. Twomey said the DOH needs to be more proactive in tracking these changes and the effects on patients, staff, and facilities. “We need a broader oversight on impacts,” she said, something Elnahal’s experience may enable him to provide.

As for his qualifications as a physician, Twomey, a nurse, said it is important that he listen to those with other backgrounds as well. “I hope it’s all for the good,” she said.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, the longtime health committee chairman, declined to comment on Murphy’s selection Tuesday afternoon.

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