With just a week left in office, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation to create an independent state advocate for individuals with disabilities, establish a task force to address hearing loss, and expand civil rights protections to include breastfeeding.
These measures were among the more than three-dozen bills the governor approved on Monday, nearly a third of which related to healthcare issues, several of which — like the bipartisan-backed ombudsman for disabled residents — have been in discussion for years.
Christie, a Republican who served for eight years, will be replaced by Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy on January 16; the two-year legislative session comes to a close tomorrow.
Arguments for an ombudsman
Advocates for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities have argued that an ombudsman, appointed specifically to represent some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens and their families, would be better able to help them navigate the programs and services available from an alphabet soup of New Jersey agencies.
The state now assists some 25,000 adults and 15,000 children with significant disabilities through divisions within the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families, with input from the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, among other agencies.
Under the legislation approved by Christie (A-3824), championed by Sen.Tom Kean (R-Union) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), among many others, the governor will appoint a qualified individual to serve as ombudsman. This person will oversee an office that is part of the Treasury Department, but not controlled by it or any other government office. The act is slated to take effect immediately, enabling Christie to fill the post before Murphy takes office. His staff declined to address this possibility late yesterday.
Estimated to cost anywhere from $150,000 to $1.9 million annually, depending on its workload, the ombudsman and a limited staff would be responsible for helping individuals access appropriate federal, state, and local services; assisting them with communications with government agencies and dispute resolution, while serving as neutral arbitrators; identifying patterns of complaints and recommend improvements; and working with state agencies to better reach those they serve. In addition, the office would be required to report its work to state officials, the governor and the lawmaker each year.
“New Jersey offers a number of support channels for individuals with developmental disabilities — so many, that it has become increasingly difficult for families to understand where they need to go, or who they need to talk to access these services,” Kean said. “Creating a central point of contact will ensure families can secure the resources they need to help their disabled loved ones thrive.”
Helping the hearing impaired
Christie also signed a bill to create the Hearing Impairment Task Force to assess the available state programs and make recommendations on how to improve services for the nearly 1 million New Jersey residents who are deaf or have hearing loss. Championed by Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Union) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), the 14-member task force will involve several state officials, including the DHS commissioner, and various advocates and individuals appointed by legislative leaders.
To encourage breastfeeding, considered the healthiest alternative for newborns, Christie signed a measure to license “milk banks,” which store and share the liquid with mothers struggling with lactation. New Jersey would become only the fifth state to regulate these facilities, according to the Democratic sponsors. The governor also OK’d a proposal to extend civil rights protections to nursing mothers.
In addition, Christie approved a law that requires all substance-use disorder services to accept patients undergoing approved medication-assisted therapy (MAT), or prescribed opiates that curb cravings and addict-like behaviors. While experts praise this approach as the only effective solution for many patients, a number of treatment facilities have declined to admit those on these drugs, insisting these individuals are not welcome in abstinence-based programs.
The governor, who has prioritized addiction issues in his last year in office, underscored the importance of MAT in New Jersey and nationwide, through his work leading a White House committee on addiction. Last year, he signed a law requiring insurance companies to cover the protocol and doubled reimbursement rates for providers in an effort to attract more physicians to the program.
Additional healthcare legislation
Other measures Christie signed into law on Monday include: