Poonam Alaigh One Step Closer to Health Commissioner Post

In her first lengthy comments since her appointment by Gov. Christie Christie, Poonam Alaigh said in her confirmation hearing that her top priority would be helping sustain the state’s hospital system

Poonam Alaigh today spoke only broadly of her plans as New Jersey’s next health commissioner, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on topics ranging from medical marijuana to charity care for the poor.

In her first lengthy comments since her appointment by Gov. Christie Christie, Alaigh said in her confirmation hearing that her top priority would be in helping sustain the state’s hospital system.

“Just in terms of sustainability of our infrastructure, so that we have quality care across a continuum,” she said. “Hospitals play a critical role in that. We have to sustain the viability of our precious asset that is our hospitals and look for other ways of managing them.”

But Alaigh, a physician and former insurance and pharmaceutical executive, provided few details in how she would do so, when economic hardships are widespread and facilities across the state are closing or consolidating.

One legislator said Passaic County had lost four of its six hospitals in just the last four years.

Alaigh also was vague on how or what she would do to address the state’s squeezed resources for charity care to low-income residents, including Christie’s proposal for another $25 million in cuts.

“At a time like this, all solutions are on the table,” Alaigh said during more than an hour of testimony.

As expected, she won the committee’s unanimous recommendation for confirmation. The full Senate is expected to vote to confirm at its next session.

Distributing Medical Marijuana

Now serving in an acting commissioner role, Alaigh also was questioned on the department’s progress in implementing a system for distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Former Gov. Jon Corzine, in one of his last acts as governor, signed the law permitting the use of medicinal marijuana that set a July date for the first launch of the programs.

Alaigh praised the law as “well thought-out,” but added there a number of systems and safeguards that she wanted to insure would be in place.

“We are vigorously trying to meet the timeline, but the first priority is to create a structure that will be suitable,” she said.

Alaigh came under some questioning from State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D-Bergen) about whether she supports families’ rights to choose immunizations for their children.

Immunization Issues

A practicing physician, Alaigh said she recognized the controversies surrounding immunizations, especially in the autism community, but said her first responsibility was to following science-backed practices.

“My role as a physician is to give recommendations based on scientific data and not subjective data,” she said.

On other controversial topics, Alaigh also said she supports abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose, and needle exchange programs for drug users.

Speaking on a topic that was central in the gubernatorial campaign, Alaigh said she supports “in concept” allowing insurance companies to provide policies that have limited coverage, described as “bare-bones” plans. Christie was criticized during the campaign for his support for such plans that would exclude mammograms and other services.

Alaigh for the last year has been executive medical director for Quality and Care Management at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the state’s largest health insurer. She was previously the medical director for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. As a physician, Alaigh specializes in vascular diseases.