Before Mary O’Dowd is even approved as Gov. Chris Christie's second health commissioner, she found herself defending his policies to the legislature -- particularly one that has become something of a thorn in the administration’s side, the implementation of New Jersey’s new medical marijuana law.
O’Dowd, testifying on her nomination before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, was grilled for nearly two hours by chairman Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) on how she planned to handle the program, a measure that the governor has been reluctant to embrace. After she promised Scutari to come back with more information on the department’s rollout of the medical marijuana law, Scutari allowed a vote on her nomination. The newest member of Christie's cabinet was approved unanimously by the panel. Her nomination also must pass the full Senate.
"I understand you to be well qualified and very well liked," Scutari said, noting that several advocates had signed up to testify on her behalf and that he had received more than a dozen calls from supporters. “I just want some more firm answers, now that you’re in charge of the department.”
O’Dowd, who has been serving as deputy commissioner, was nominated for the top spot on March 25, when Gov. Christie announced that his first health commissioner, Dr. Poonam Alaigh, would be stepping down on April 1. Gov. Christie praised Dr. Alaigh’s work at the time, but others have said she was struggling in the role. O’Dowd joined the department in 2008, under then Commissioner Heather Howard, and has also worked with the New Jersey Hospital Association.
"She’s very smart, very capable, very knowledgeable on the issues," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a member of the healthcare committee who has worked with O’Dowd over the years. "She has all the right tools to be a good commissioner," he said.
Former Assembly Speaker Jack Collins (R-Salem), a longtime force in the statehouse, also praised O’Dowd as "enthusiastic, bright" and "respectfully direct" as he introduced her to the judiciary committee. O’Dowd joined the Assembly Republican office staff right out of college and Collins recalled how she once challenged him in front of the caucus, insisting he was wrong.
"Ten years later, the scars are still on me," he teased, adding, "This young woman can do well for New Jersey."
Members of the Judiciary Committee generally agreed, but that didn’t stop them from peppering O’Dowd, 33, with direct questions about budget cuts to programs for nursing home care, family planning services and HIV medications. But the issue that attracted Scutari’s fire was the department’s handling of the medical marijuana program, which was signed into law by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine and is slated to take effect in July.
Supporters of the law, including many Democrats, have said the administration is dragging its feet on implementing the program. On Thursday, Scutari drilled O’Dowd on the department’s process in selecting the nonprofit organizations that will grow and sell the marijuana and on the degree to which the Governor’s Office dictated the process.
"I think there’s room for various opinions” on how the rollout is going, O’Dowd conceded, but added that the department has played its role appropriately. She said she would be happy to return any time and bring other members of the team before the committee.
O’Dowd shared a copy of the nine-page scoring system used to rank the 35 applications the department received from nonprofits seeking to run a so-called Alternative Treatment Center (ATC), where the drug will be grown and sold. The department selected six operators last month.
O’Dowd also described the five-person advisory board -- with members from the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Community Affairs -- that assessed the applications and ranked the candidates that were selected by the former commissioner. O’Dowd also said she was not aware of any interference from the governor’s office.
"My goal specifically is moving forward with implementation of the program, so that’s where my focus is," she added.
The law, which makes New Jersey the 14th state to permit the use of medical marijuana, is considered by many to be the most restrictive in the nation. It is only open to patients with certain debilitating diseases and terminal conditions, as well as those who are restricted to traditional treatments.
It also requires patients to have an ongoing relationship with a prescribing doctor and for both physician and patient to be registered with the state. There is a $200 registration fee, which can be reduced to $20 in some cases. Patients will be allowed to purchase up to two ounces of marijuana every month.
The department will require the ATCs to be based in six locations, and it will also approve a price schedule for each before the program becomes active. The department is now reviewing comments on the regulations that will guide the program; earlier drafts had to be revised when supporters of the bill said they were not in keeping with the law’s intent. O’Dowd said that an early review suggested that the comments were largely positive this time around.
The six ATCs and their planned dispensary locations are: Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center Corp, in Manalapan; Compassionate Care Centers of America Foundation Inc., in New Brunswick; Compassionate Care Foundation Inc. in Bellmawr; Compassionate Sciences Inc., at a site in either Burlington or Camden county; Foundation Harmony, in Secaucus; and Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair.
O’Dowd joined the health department in 2008 as chief of staff to Commissioner Howard, during which time she managed department’s operations and coordinated the state’s response to the H1N1 flu virus among federal, state, county and local school and healthcare officials. She also helped lead efforts to financially stabilize the state’s hospital system, including the implementation of an early warning system designed to help protect patients when hospitals face fiscal difficulties.
In her prepared testimony, O’Dowd outlined three areas she intends to focus on as commissioner: promoting the health of people and communities; improving end-of-life care; and enhancing department operations to "work smarter." As an example of improved operations, she described an ongoing effort to connect low-income seniors who apply for pharmaceutical assistance with financial assistance for food as well. By streamlining the application process the department has been able to simplify things for seniors and administrators.
O’Dowd, a native New Jerseyan, graduated with a biology degree from Rutgers University and continued on to receive a master’s degree in Public Health in Health Services Management from Columbia University. She accepted a fellowship at NYU Medical Center that involved hospital finance and later worked on finances for the hospital’s emergency room.
Dr. Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist who is currently an assistant commissioner, will step up to be Deputy Commissioner under O’Dowd. State statute requires that either the commissioner or her deputy be a physician.