Profile: Health Chairman Eyes Opiate Addiction Bill, Other Reforms

State Sen. Joseph Vitale was inspired by personal experience to become involved in healthcare policy

State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex)
Name: Joseph F. Vitale

Jobs: State senator (D-Middlesex), 1998 to present; president, Vitale Sign Corp., Rahway

Age: 59

What he does: Vitale serves as the chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. He determines when bills will be considered by the committee to be released for a vote by the entire Senate. This makes him a gatekeeper and crucial player in state healthcare policy.

What’s at the top of his agenda: Vitale held a hearing in October on the growing problem with opioid addictions and identifies it as issue No. 1 for the coming year. His goal is comprehensive legislation that addresses prevention, treatment, and recovery.

Others goals: Vitale also plans to press forward with bills that would allow people who have been adopted to gain access to their birth records and to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assaults.

What legislation he is most proud of: Vitale has built up policy expertise during his 16 years in the Senate and has been the sponsor of many of the crucial healthcare laws.

Vitale said it’s difficult for him to assess which of the bills he has sponsored or co-sponsored have had the largest impact. He cited as potential candidates the Patient Safety Act of 2004, which required healthcare facilities to report medical errors and develop plans to reduce them; the 2007 expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to provide health coverage to more low-income parents; and the 2004 law that barred those convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms. He emphasized that he doesn’t deserve sole credit for these measures.

His take on Gov. Chris Christie: Vitale said that Christie or members of his staff have been accessible, even when they disagree with him. This has led to compromises like the law that provides immunity to those who aid drug-overdose victims.

Vitale added that healthcare hasn’t been Christie’s primary “or even his secondary” focus, but said he has made good selections in health policy staff members, starting with Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd.

Going into the family business: Vitale is the president of Vitale Sign Corp., a Rahway-based company with six employees. His father launched the business in 1948 out of his in-laws’ home. Vitale described his father as a “Depression kid with seven brothers and sisters in Newark” who successfully built his business and raised his family in Woodbridge.

How personal tragedy helped shape his career: Vitale’s father died of complications from contracting hepatitis C through a tainted blood transfusion during open-heart surgery. The operation was performed a year before blood banks began screening for hepatitis C. The contaminated blood likely came from a drug user who had used a dirty needle and then sold his or her blood for money. The condition led his father to receive dialysis three times per week for the last few years of his life.

The experience inspired one of the first bills Vitale sponsored, along with the late Sen. Wynona Lipman, which paved the way for a needle-exchange program. “I didn’t want to see that happen again to other people,” Vitale said, adding that having addicts use clean needles can benefit more people than just the drug-user.

“It’s one of the reasons that I’m so passionate about healthcare. I think things like that in someone’s life define them,” Vitale said.

How travel further fired his commitment: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vitale made several trips organized by his church, the First Presbyterian Church of Avenel, to do mission work in Paraiso, Dominican Republic, a town on the country’s southwest coast. He said that the residents, in addition to facing profound poverty in terms of food and housing, had almost no public health infrastructure.

“It was really striking that other than local health and homemade remedies, the closest hospital — which by our standards really wouldn’t be (a hospital) — was at least an hour away on a treacherous road that was generally inaccessible for any emergency.”

This experience led Vitale to think about the lack of healthcare access for many in his home state.

“It seemed to be a natural passion for me to be involved in issues like that here in New Jersey,” he said.

How he got his start: Like other new senators, Vitale was asked in 1998 to submit a list of committees that he would like to serve on. “I said, ‘Health, health, health, health and whatever else you want to stick me with,’ ” Vitale recalled. Then-Senate President Richard J. Codey, a health committee member, agreed to the request.

Changes he’s seen in past 16 years: Vitale said the Senate has become “a bit more partisan, more isolated and more inflexible on issues,” adding that bills are increasingly labeled as “conservative” or “liberal” when they shouldn’t be.

“One of the most frustrating elements of the process is there are times where it doesn’t seem like the support or the opposition of the bill is based on data or outcomes or facts,” Vitale said, noting that his concerns are similar to those he heard from veteran senators when he first joined the Senate, perhaps reflecting a decades-long trend toward partisanship.

Where he went to school: A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, Vitale is one of the few legislators without a college degree. He attended Rutgers University for nearly a semester, but when his father became ill, he dropped out to work in the family business.

Vitale said he doesn’t regret not having a degree because he’s been successful without one. He said the lesson for young people is that they should apply themselves in whatever they do, whether it’s attending college, going to a trade school or joining a business.

Personal: Vitale is a lifelong resident of Woodbridge, where he lives with his wife Robin Vitale, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association in New York. They do not have children.

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