Profile: Assemblyman Brings Physician’s Perspective to Healthcare Issues

Andrew Kitchenman | May 20, 2015 | Profiles
Lifelong Burlington County resident pursued career mapped out since childhood

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., Democratic incumbent for District 7
Who he is: Herb Conaway Jr.

What he does: Assemblyman, 7th District; chairman, Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee; doctor, clinical professor of internal medicine, director of the internal medicine clinic, St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton

Age: 52

Why you should know about him: As chairman of the committee overseeing most healthcare legislation in the Assembly, Conaway is one of the most powerful voices in the state on health policy. He’s widely respected for his knowledge of the issues, and is known for bringing a doctor’s perspective to sponsoring and shaping bills.

Education as a priority: Conaway said his parents expected him to work hard academically, but also to have well-rounded skills and interests, including playing sports and music.

“Dad had this idea that you had to sort-of develop skills across the landscape, because you never knew where you might land, and you had to be prepared to deal with whatever life threw at you” – an approach that Conaway takes as an internist, a doctor who must treat a wide variety of conditions.

Conaway is an ardent supporter of public school funding, including the state Supreme Court’s Abbott decisions that require the state to provide additional money to low-income districts. He was a sponsor of legislation signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine that revised the school-funding formula.

His hospital office has an expansive view of the vacant Trenton Central High School, which is being replaced.

“There is no reason, in my view, that every kid in this state should not have access to a first-rate public education,” he said. “It is the thing that I think has driven the success of this country since public education was started way back when, and we at our peril are endangering our success as a nation by not investing in education.

Bills he’s most proud of: Since joining the Assembly in 1998, Conaway said he’s most proud of several bills affecting a wide range of areas, including the school-funding legislation. He also cites his sponsorship of NJ KidCare, a state insurance program that covered children and was later expanded to become NJ FamilyCare.

“Those efforts at expanding insurance, so that people then have access to healthcare, are very important to me as a physician and as someone involved in healthcare policy,” he said.

He’s also proud of public health measures like the indoor smoking ban and the law from his first term that allows police officers to pull over drivers for not wearing their seatbelts, rather than being limited to enforcing the seat-belt mandate during traffic stops for other reasons.

“It’s gratifying that policy changes such as that translate directly into saving somebody’s life,” Conaway said.

Agenda for 2015: Over the coming months, Conaway anticipates working further on the package of bills that seek to curb drug addiction and overdoses in the state.

“The failure here is that our healthcare system does not address the needs of those who have addictions,” Conaway said, adding that includes a need for the state to increase efforts to help people quit smoking, as well as alcohol.

Conaway said there aren’t enough psychiatric beds for adults or children in the state and that insurers don’t adequately reimburse providers for addiction treatment.

But Conaway also expressed a concern that some doctors are beginning to shy away from appropriate prescriptions of narcotics because of aggressive government monitoring, which he said could lead to some patients seeking illegal street drugs.

“What people need to recognize is that it’s driven at the beginning from our inadequate mental healthcare system,” which fails to treat people before their addictions worsen , he said.

“It’s not going to be easy – raising awareness may be the best that we’re going to be able to do,” due to the potential expense to the state of developing more capacity to provide behavioral healthcare, Conaway said.

Conaway also would like to see the state look at whether nutritional supplements being sold in the state contain the listed ingredients, and not ingredients that aren’t advertised. He noted recent reports of testing by prosecutors in New York that found problems with products sold by national retail chains. Since Conaway doesn’t expect a gridlocked Congress to address the issue, he’s interested in having the state exploring it.

“If there are areas where states can take some of this on, or at least raise public awareness that there are concerns, maybe people will start walking with their feet,” and lead supplement makers to change their practices, Conaway said.

Close to his roots: Conaway was born in the same hospital where he works today, St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, and has lived in Burlington County nearly his entire life. A Moorestown resident, he recalls the Bordentown of his childhood as a place “where you could pedal your bike down to river and go fishing or go hiking through the woods and catch frogs in the creek or the pond.”

He played multiple sports at Bordentown Regional High School, including serving as the quarterback of the football team. His father was a history teacher at the school and also coached track, and the assemblyman said he still has people approach him to tell him what a difference his father made in their lives.

“It always reminds me of the power that teachers and coaches … really to materially impact the lives of their students,” Conaway said. “For coaches, how to work as a team, how to deal with physical limits, how to overcome adversity, and hopefully how to both win and lose.”

Career choice: Conaway was first aware of medicine as a career from the example of his mother, who worked as a nurse, night nursing supervisor and assistant nursing director at St. Francis.

“I still have, probably somewhere in a box, an assignment that we had to do in kindergarten that asked what did you want to be when you grew up,” he said. “I remember saying I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a pilot and, it turns out, you know, that I became all three of them.”

It’s not a choice he regrets. “It seems like we’re always on the side of the angels,” Conaway said of working as a healthcare provider. “It’s a helping profession, and while you can’t always fix everything, you can almost always help everything in healthcare.”

Varied career: After medical school, Conaway had a medical residency in surgery, but chose to work in internal medicine after enlisting in the Air Force, where he served as a captain in the medical corps at McGuire Air Force Base. He was able to remain at McGuire as he completed law school – he says he was fortunate that he was able to stay in New Jersey for his entire four years of service because many southerners and others in the military don’t want to be stationed in New Jersey.

Conaway later worked at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and in a group with hospitalists – doctors who serve hospital patients. He later opened his own practice in Willingboro, before coming to St. Francis in 2005.

Active recreation: Conaway enjoys skiing in the winter, and bicycling and playing golf in the warmer months.

He also enjoys spending time with his 19-year-old daughter, a University of Delaware student, and with his 14-year-old son.

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