Gov Taps Respected Nurse and Hospital Exec to Lead Health Department

Lilo H. Stainton | June 26, 2019 | Health Care
Judith Persichilli is choice to replace Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who departs next month for the top job at Newark’s University Hospital

Credit: NJTV News
Judith Persichilli
The first time around, Gov. Phil Murphy selected a relatively unfamiliar, Ivy League-educated doctor with experience in the Obama administration to shepherd his healthcare agenda. Now, 18 months later, he’s betting on a nurse and hospital executive well-known in New Jersey, with degrees from two Garden State colleges.

On Tuesday, Murphy announced that Pennington resident Judith Persichilli is his choice to head the state Department of Health starting next month, when Dr. Shereef Elnahal departs for the top job at Newark’s University Hospital. If approved by the state Senate, she is expected to take the reins on July 29 from Elnahal, who has played a critical role in many of the governor’s key agenda items during his year-and-a-half as health commissioner.

Persichilli also spent much of the past year at University, the only New Jersey hospital with a statutory public mandate, as part of the Murphy administration’s efforts to reform the struggling facility. In August, the governor tapped her to study and report on the hospital’s problems; in December the board named her acting president and CEO, after the former leader stepped down.

“It’s the ultimate all-in-the-family story,” Murphy said Tuesday. “I am excited to have her join our administration, and I thank her for continuing her tremendous public service, and to helping us build the strong partnerships that will lead to a healthier state.”

When Elnahal announced his departure plans in May — news Murphy called “bittersweet” — state officials said they planned to conduct a wide, possibly national search for his replacement. That process produced several qualified candidates, but Persichilli, who was a finalist in the initial search that led to Elnahal’s selection, was considered to be the best fit for the role, given her background and experience.

Choice wins wide praise

The news was welcomed by a range of healthcare stakeholders, including nursing and hospital leaders and the head of an industry collaboration focused on quality that Persichilli helped found. They praised her knowledge of the healthcare sector, especially in New Jersey, her leadership skills, and her experience — both as a clinician and as a hospital executive who oversaw a major Catholic healthcare network, Trinity Health, with facilities in 22 states.

“Two words: Excellent choice,” said Cathy Bennett, president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association and a former state health commissioner. “In each position, (Persichilli) met the challenge not only of strong leadership and sound management, but she did so while never losing her focus on the patients, the community and the most vulnerable. That compassion is backed up by a strong grip on the complexities of healthcare today and a vision for healthcare’s future,” Bennett added.

Her selection was also cheered by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), longtime head of the health committee in the upper house, and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a physician who leads the healthcare panel in the Assembly. “I’ve enjoyed working alongside Judy as a thought leader on public health issues,” Vitale said. “Her vast experience and leadership qualities will well serve our state.”

If approved, Persichilli will be paid $175,000 annually (the same as Elnahal and other cabinet members), a drop from the $300,000 salary she has earned as interim CEO at University.

The department — which regulates hospitals and other healthcare facilities, funds medical clinics and local health departments, operates the five state psychiatric facilities, and oversees the medical examiner’s office, among other functions — has a $2.1 billion budget and a staff of 5,700.

Other changes in the offing

The addition of Persichilli is not the only change the department is facing in the coming months. Three executive-level staffers, including second-in-command Principal Deputy Commissioner Jackie Cornell, who oversaw public-health services, have departed for other jobs in recent months, leaving half of the existing executive posts empty.

Click to expand/close
Going forward, the DOH plans to merge two currently separate, but highly interconnected roles into one office: the Office of Population Health and Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. The department has identified a candidate to lead this combined post, but has yet to announce it internally.

That leaves the Office of Public Health Services, the post previously occupied by Cornell, who left in late May to work for the cannabis industry. State statute requires that a physician be picked for this job if the commissioner is not a doctor. The search for a candidate is expected to begin soon. Whether the individual chosen will retain the principal deputy title granted to Cornell is a decision for department’s leadership, along with the governor’s office.

While such bureaucratic changes tend to go unnoticed by the public at large, some have suggested they can create extra challenges for state employees, their public partners and industry officials who deal with the DOH regularly.

“The high rate of leadership turnover at DOH has to have been hard on the staff there, and I expect that they are looking forward to a steadier ship in the coming months,” noted Rutgers Professor Joel Cantor, who founded and now leads the University’s Center for State Health Policy.

“The Murphy administration has ambitious goals in health, including tackling health disparities and maternal and infant outcomes, and a lot of the expertise on these issues is lodged at DOH,” Cantor added. “Having strong leadership in place is essential for the administration.”

Continuity for governor’s agenda

Under Elnahal’s leadership, the department launched an 18-month plan to overhaul the beleaguered system comprising five state psychiatric hospitals, greatly expanded New Jersey’s medical-marijuana program, initiated efforts to combat opioid addiction, and pushed an initiative to link all hospital records electronically. He also partnered with First Lady Tammy Murphy to reduce steep racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality.

“It’s an agenda that sees health as the foundation for a stronger state,” Persichilli said, praising Murphy’s leadership and Elnahal’s execution of these plans. She thanked Murphy for entrusting her with the responsibility and said she is “thrilled by the opportunity to continue serving the people of New Jersey.”

Credit: Governor's Office
Departing health commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, right, stands by Gov. Phil Murphy at a press conference yesterday.
Elnahal said he has “full confidence” in Persichilli’s ability to carry out the governor’s healthcare agenda in a way that makes a difference. “Her record of accomplishments in health care speaks for itself — but I have also seen her in action as a dynamic and engaging leader,” he added.

Persichilli is president emeritus at CHE Trinity Health, a nonprofit Catholic hospital system, and previously headed Catholic Health East, a healthcare network that became part of Trinity in 2013. Before that, she ran St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton for eight years, a facility that is now part of the Trinity system.

After receiving her nursing degree from a school associated with St. Francis, Persichilli went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rutgers and a masters in administration from Rider, graduating summa cum laude in both advanced programs. She also has honorary degrees from two universities, was inducted into the New Jersey State Nurses Association Hall of Honor in 2006, and serves on several professional organizations, including the board of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, which brings together diverse stakeholders in search of quality and efficiency improvements.

“This is an inspired selection,” Quality Institute president and CEO Linda Schwimmer said. “Judy’s leadership is guided by her deep understanding of health care, her experience running one of the nation’s largest essential hospital systems, her clinical background as a nurse, and her great respect for every patient.”

In addition, Debbie White, a nurse and president of the state’s largest healthcare union, Health Professionals and Allied Employees, said her members have gained significant respect for Persichilli through their interactions at University Hospital.

“This is indeed a historic day for New Jersey’s nurses and health professionals,” White said, noting that members were confident the new commissioner “will bring the proper oversight needed to ensure patients have access to quality care and services — ranging from primary care services to advanced lifesaving treatments across the state.”