Murphy to Undo Contentious Christie Makeover of Mental Health, Addiction Services

Governor expected to shift most DMHAS programs back to the Department of Human Services

Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
State Sen. Joe Vitale
Just eight months after a controversial government reorganization of an array of mental health and addiction services, oversight of those programs will return to the Department of Human Services, under a plan the Murphy administration is expected to unveil today.

Gov. Phil Murphy will call for much of the work of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services to be shifted from the Department of Health back to the DHS, which ran these programs for nearly a decade, according to several people briefed on the pending announcement.

However, the DOH will retain control of the state’s four psychiatric hospitals, which care for some 1,300 severely mentally-ill residents; the department has already launched several efforts to improve operations and outcomes at these facilities. But the DHS will again manage all community-based mental health and addiction programs, and other services, they said.

DMHAS has a $1.16 billion budget and employs more than 4,300 people, many of whom work at the state psychiatric hospitals. It was not immediately clear how these resources would be reallocated under Murphy’s plan. Administration officials did not respond to a request for comment, or declined to discuss the move and the reasons in advance.

Former Gov. Chris Christie confounded many mental health and addiction providers, lawmakers and community members when he announced his plan to move the entire division from Human Services to Health a year ago, during a somewhat similar budget battle with legislative leaders as Murphy is now embroiled in. The goal was to create a more integrated system of care, in which behavioral health services were better coordinated with primary care, which is overseen by the DOH.

Lawmakers tried to block Christie

While many agreed with the former governor’s intention, he received significant criticism for the timing of the move — just six months before he left office — and the lack of public input in advance of the massive change. Lawmakers tried to stop the shift but were unable to pass legislation blocking the move before the deadline Christie set.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chairman, who worked with former Human Services committee chairwoman Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), to avert Christie’s plan, said Murphy’s move is the right one.

“I have always advocated for (DMHAS) return to the DOH after opposing its removal at the start,” Vitale said when asked about the change late Wednesday. “Its return is best for those the division serves and that should have always been the motive. It wasn’t,” he said, without elaborating.

Once the Christie plan was in action, the DOH led conference calls and meetings with providers and held town halls in all 21 counties to inform stakeholders of their intentions and get feedback on the process, which was completed by November. In addition, legislation adopted in December and signed by Christie before he left office in January provided for additional changes to the way the health department licenses certain providers, which supporters said was an important aspect of better integrating care.

Drumbeat for return to status quo

But a number of stakeholders have continued to advocate for Christie’s reorganization to be reversed. Social service experts who advised Murphy during the transition urged him to return most of the DMHAS functions to the human services department within the first 100 days, except for some aspects of facility licensing, which they said should remain under DOH. The report estimated reorganizing these services again would cost the state about $100,000; it is not clear how much has been spent on these changes to date.

While it has been under his purview, Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal has repeatedly said he is working closely with DHS Commissioner Carole Johnson to ensure that services reach patients in need. But Elnahal also said at legislative hearings this spring that the Murphy administration was actively reviewing the Christie move and that “all options are on the table.”