Assembly Budget Committee Hears From Department of Health

The Department of Health has a $1.6 billion budget.

By Briana Vannozzi

New Jersey’s commissioner for the Department of Health oversees dozens of offices and programs so budget hearings are always a bit of a mixed bag. Today was the Assembly’s turn to comb through the $1.6 billion department tab and a few new items cropped up.

“Eight and a half [million dollars] plus another $5 million from the not-for-profit Cooper Health Systems was used to purchase a for-profit insurance company. Is that an appropriate expenditure?” asked Assemblyman John McKeon.

McKeon wanted to know why Cooper Health System in Camden recently purchased 20 percent of AmeriHealth New Jersey‘s stock — a for-profit company that lost $46 million in 2015 and in 2016 another $26.5 million.

“I know that our health systems are no longer just hospitals alone. Throughout the state our hospitals have become part of larger systems and networks as they look at new ways to deliver care and do it in a way that addresses things like cost, and addresses things like access and addresses things like quality,” said Commissioner Cathleen Bennett.

Lawmakers pressed the department on a number of other issues, like charity care and family planning centers. As one Democrat put it, the commissioner showed immense constraint in addressing Obamacare repeal.

“Medicaid expansion is great, but now when you have something looming over where a percentage of that might be cut and what that will do not only to the now insured woman that would get those services through their Medicaid expansion, through the centers, but also maybe eliminating some of these centers that are providing this service,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin.

“We’re feeling pretty confident about what we’re seeing at the moment with women’s health. But again we are tracking what’s taking place and we’re waiting to see what the Senate delivers with its bill. I think that’s really important to do given the Senate has clearly indicated its intention to start from scratch and to develop its own version of the bill and I think from there we’ll be in an even better position to determine what the potential impacts on the system could be,” said Bennett.

“So the department is just going to wait to see what the Senate comes up with?” asked Marin. “We’re not planning ahead to maybe have some separate funds allocated in case some of this funding is retracted?”

Bennett says federally qualified and community health centers used to be part of the ACA, but about two years ago that funding stream was pulled and is now with energy and commerce. Bottom line, they feel assured grants and funding will continue because they’re not tied to Obamacare.

“And what does 3 percent mean in dollars?” Assemblyman Gary Schaer asked.

“Roughly about $18 million,” said Bennett.

“And with all the discussions going on in Washington, the passage of the bill by the House of Representatives, consideration by the Senate, the maximum the department is envisioning right now is a cut of $18 million?” replied Schaer.

“That’s correct,” Bennett said.

Schaer also grilled department heads on the proposed cut to cancer research funding. At $1 million a year, the committee chair said it reaps benefits tenfold.

“It’s not in the budget, it’s not a priority. I mean, that’s a correct translation from me, isn’t it?” Schaer asked.

“I cannot answer to that. I’m sorry,” said Management and Administration Director for the Department of Health Eric Anderson.

The budget deadline is just over a month away.