Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, seeking to strengthen the state’s defenses against potentially harmful federal policy changes, has appointed two Garden State natives with significant national experience to lead New Jersey’s human services and child welfare agencies.
While their names may not be well-known in Trenton today, several advocates and lawmakers said they were impressed by the appointees’ experience and welcomed them as partners in protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents. Murphy said he chose them specifically to help in the fight against efforts in Washington to dismantle safety-net programs.
Carole Johnson, a senior policy director in the White House under President Barack Obama who worked on the Affordable Care Act, mental health and substance use services, and aging programs, was tapped to head the Department of Human Services, the state’s largest department.
Christine Norbut Beyer, who once led the now-defunct New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services and served as a senior director at the Casey Family Programs, a national child welfare advocate, was picked to head the Department of Children and Families, where she once worked as an assistant commissioner.
‘Two of the most consequential positions’
“These are two of the most consequential positions in state government, with the lives and dignity of countless New Jerseyans in the balance,” Murphy said Wednesday, announcing the news at HomeFront NJ, a social service hub that provides secure emergency housing for several dozen families, and works with both departments. Both nominations must be confirmed by the state Senate.
The DHS, with 14,000 employees and an $11 billion budget, oversees the Medicaid program, which insures some 1.8 million New Jerseyans, and diverse senior and disability services. DCF was created in 2006 as part of a larger child welfare reform to oversee child welfare, abuse investigations, and foster care; these roles were previously handled by DYFS, which had been under Human Services. Child welfare services in New Jersey have been under a federal monitor for years.
Murphy, a Democrat, said he chose Johnson and Norbut Beyer as leaders for these agencies because they understand the importance of healthcare and other social safety-net programs and realize the potential in all citizens, including those who seek help.
“And that job is getting tougher in the face of federal policies that could potentially put those already in the margins further from our grasp,” Murphy said. “On a national level,” he said, “New Jersey can no longer stand silent, but must help to lead the fight” to protect Medicaid and ensure continued support for programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress has declined to fund this year for the first time.
Ongoing war on Obamacare
President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have waged an ongoing war on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which expanded Medicaid to reach far more Americans — including 800,000 more New Jersey residents. (One key aspect of the ACA — the tax penalty for those who don’t purchase insurance — was eliminated as part of the recent federal tax reform.) The ACA also ensured that women have access to free birth control.
Johnson, who grew up in North Cape May, said she was proud of the work she did on the ACA and other achievements, like a regulatory change that significantly expanded access to medically assisted treatment, carefully controlled prescriptions that help opioid abusers avoid the cravings and other pitfalls of addictions. She also cited federal efforts to help seniors and disabled individuals to more easily obtain care and services at home.
“But much has changed in Washington in the last year. The progress we made is under threat,” said Johnson, who also worked as a health policy researcher at George Washington University and held high-level jobs at the Alliance of Community Health Plans, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Heart Association. “And we need strong leaders like Gov.-elect Murphy to continue the fight for health and economic security that people have come to depend on,” she said.
Murphy and Johnson said the state alone cannot support Medicaid, which depends on more than $4 billion in federal dollars each year, or the ACA expansion now under direct attack. “There is no replacing the federal government’s commitment to resources for the Affordable Care Act,” Johnson said, urging federal representatives in Congress to work together to strengthen the program, not eliminate it. “I will say, we have to be prepared for all contingencies” here in New Jersey, she added.
‘This is not easy work’
Both Johnson and Norbut Beyer said they were eager to work with legislative partners, advocates and families, and the staff at both departments, whom they praised for their dedication to vulnerable residents.
Norbut Beyer started her career as an intern at a DYFS office in Red Bank and worked nearly a decade in state government before moving to Casey in 2012.
“The men and women working within DCF are some of the most dedicated and strongest advocates for children and families that I’ve come across in my 30 years in the field,” Norbut Beyer recalled. “This is not easy work, and it is frequently criticized. Yet they show up every day with the hope and desire of making a difference for the families they serve,” she said.
Several advocates expressed optimism about Murphy’s picks. Cecilia Zalkind, president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which has closely monitored the state’s child-welfare reform, said the governor-elect made good choices in selecting Johnson and Norbut Beyer. “Both bring strong backgrounds to these critically important agencies for vulnerable children and families,” she said. “I am looking forward to working with both nominees once they are in office.”
Joe Young, head of Disability Rights New Jersey, said that while he didn’t know them personally, he was also encouraged. “We’re optimistic that the new administration will promote comprehensive, accessible, community-based services, particularly for people with disabilities,” he said.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who chairs the human services committee and has battled to protect services for vulnerable citizens, said Murphy has made a “very intelligent and comforting selection” in choosing these two women.
“I don’t know either of them personally, but I am familiar with their record and their experience and they are both highly qualified,” she said. “I think it is a brilliant move by our governor-elect to choose people who are going to lead New Jersey and continue that safety net, especially in light of the Medicaid cuts we may be experiencing.”
“I’m hoping that New Jersey can be that buffer” to Trump administration plans to dismantle the ACA and other safety net programs, she added.