Jennifer Velez, credited by policy analysts and healthcare advocates with expertly handling some of the biggest Medicaid changes in New Jersey’s history, is ending her eight-year run as state human services commissioner.
Her tenure was marked by an ability to balance competing demands under governors from both major political parties, and reshaping Medicaid as well as non-healthcare programs affecting the state’s children.
After leaving her post at the end of the month, she will be taking a leadership position with Barnabas Health, the state’s largest healthcare system. Elizabeth Connolly, currently Velez’s chief of staff, will be acting commissioner until Gov. Chris Christie nominates a successor.
Velez oversaw the expansion of Medicaid eligibility, which added 390,000 residents to New Jersey FamilyCare health coverage in 2014. Her tenure also saw the state receive a five-year federal waiver allowing it to refocus its Medicaid long-term care toward home- and community-based services.
A similar shift to home and community-based care also marked the department’s handling of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities under Velez.
“She’s done a great job,” said Raymond J. Castro, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit New Jersey Policy Perspective. “She managed to get a lot of support for programs at a difficult time for the state’s budget.”
Velez, who lived during part of her youth in a trailer park in Moonachie, was consistently a strong advocate for low- and moderate-income residents, according to policy observers.
While Christie signaled that his administration would represent a sharp break from that of his predecessor, Jon S. Corzine, he chose to keep Velez, who Corzine had appointed as commissioner in 2007.
In Christie’s first budget, he cut back eligibility for Medicaid, which is the largest single budget line for the state.
But after that budget, Velez oversaw a series of new programs and initiatives, with the 2014 expansion of Medicaid among the most significant.
“I think she was able to do it because she was able to demonstrate to the governor’s office that her proposals were cost-effective,” said Castro, who worked with Velez as the Department of Human Services’ legislative director while Velez was in the counsel’s office and later when she served as deputy commissioner.
Castro said the work of Velez and her staff, including Medicaid director Valerie Harr, must have been essential to Christie’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility. This decision pleased advocates for expanding access to healthcare but drew criticism from opponents of the Affordable Care Act, the federal law that made the expansion possible.
Velez’s tenure also laid the groundwork for better integrating behavioral health with medical care, although the implementation of this change has been stalled in recent years.
Christie praised her work in the statement announcing that she will be leaving.
“Jen Velez has been one of the smartest and most dedicated people I have had the honor of knowing during my time as governor,” he said.
Velez said in the statement that serving the department under Christie’s leadership has been “one of the most gratifying and fulfilling roles I’ve ever had.” She praised the talent and expertise of department staff members.
The full effects of the department’s work under Velez remain to be seen. In particular, it’s unclear whether the shift to managed care for Medicaid long-term supports and services will succeed in its intended goal of improving patient care while keeping a lid on costs, Castro said.
“We have a lot to learn from these programs but conceptually, they made a lot of sense — and I think they were developed as an alternative to budget cuts,” he said.
Much of the department’s work in recent years has focused on strengthening local programs serving people with developmental disabilities. Velez’s work in this area drew praise from Thomas Baffuto, executive director of the Arc of New Jersey..
“On every level, she was there for folks, making sure that policies and procedures were as good as they could be,” said Baffuto who added that in his 17 years leading the organization, Velez was “probably the finest commissioner as anyone I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”
Baffuto described Velez’s ability to successfully work with officials from both parties as “incredible,” adding that her ability to never become flustered likely helped her to do the job.
“It’s a testament to her commitment to the folks she represented,” he said of her service under both governors. “We felt that the most vulnerable were her top priority.”
Some of the department’s actions under Velez drew sharp criticism. The department’s move to close two developmental centers and proceed with a program called Return Home New Jersey – which brought back to New Jersey state residents with developmental disabilities who were living atout-of-state facilities — have been the subject of controversy. Families of residents affected by both moves have accused the state of moving developmentally disabled people from the only homes they have known most of their lives, putting their health at risk.
But Velez and other senior Department of Human Services officials consistently defended the changes, saying that they followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires the disabled to live in the least-restrictive, appropriate setting.
As Barnabas senior vice president of strategy and planning, Velez “will oversee the development of the strategic vision and plan of the corporation, working with the senior leadership team,” integrate hospitals with local communities, oversee community health assessments and identify growth opportunities, Barnabas President and CEO Barry H. Ostrowsky said in a statement.
“She has a deep understanding of our communities’ needs and her experience and expertise will be especially effective in representing Barnabas Health as we transform to maintain our position as one of the nation’s foremost providers of healthcare and wellness,” he said.
Her ability to shape major policy initiatives under politically contrasting administrations dated to her tenure from 1998 to 2003 as senior associate counsel and Assembly liaison in the office of governor’s counsel. In those posts, she helped shape a series of laws and policies, including the Homeless Youth Act, the Safe Haven Infant Protection Act, the law creating New Jersey FamilyCare, the creation of a kinship legal guardianship status, and the state’s implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the state earned income tax credit.
She then served as first assistant child advocate when the Office of the Child Advocate was created in 2003. After three years in that post, she became deputy human services commissioner, with the responsibility of overseeing Medicaid, serving for a year before becoming commissioner.
Connolly has been with the department for 26 years, including serving as director of data analysis in the Office of Children’s Services and department director of research and evaluation. She led the department’s Hurricane Sandy recovery initiatives and emergency preparedness activities related to Ebola.