Legislature hears concerns over Christie’s plan to reorganize mental health services

Mental Health organizations argue that the timing is not right for this kind of drastic shift.

It’s not often that the Legislature meets for a joint session. It’s even more rare to see it happen in July. Today’s joint hearing of the Assembly Human Services and Senate Health Committees underscored the importance of the issue in debate. Gov. Chris Christie’s reorganization plan is to transfer Mental Health and Addiction Services from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Health by the end of the summer.

“The transitioning of addiction services and mental health into the Department of Health is a significant shift,” said the Chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. “It’s something that we as legislators have the responsibility to vet.”

Testimony lasted for hours and the general consensus from stake holders and care providers suggested the plan needs more public scrutiny. Many believe it will pull service delivery into jeopardy, just one of dozens of concerns.

President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies Debra Wentz said, “The timing of the move, the rapidity of its implementation, the lack of both vetting for impact and stakeholder input, and the disconnect from the division of medical assistance and health services.”

“Adding such a major new function to the Department of Health will divert it from its core mission as a regulatory and planning agency, which oversees health in New Jersey,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective Senior Analyst Ray Castro. “We believe that function is critical and will be especially needed in the future given the many changes that are going on in the health sector.”

The plan means all four of the state’s psychiatric hospitals, serving roughly 1,500 patients, would become the responsibility of the Health Department, along with nearly one billion dollars for addiction, mental health services and over 200 employees. The governor admits the change will improve efficiency and streamline health services by integrating care, requiring one agency to oversee it instead of two.

“It is fair to say that any solution to creating a single license for caregivers to provide behavioral health that is substance abuse disorder or health and primary care would require some reorganization of the two agencies,” said John Jacobi, Seton Hall professor and author of a March 2016 report that identified hurdles preventing New Jersey from better integrating behavioral and physical care.

“The takeaway for me is we all knew going into this that it’s a very complicated proposal,” explained Senator Joe Vitale, chair of the Senate Health Committee. “But also the services that are provided by the Department of Human Services now and the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse are also very complicated. You know, just moving them doesn’t solve any of those complicated problems.”

“What is the compelling reason to integrate agencies that at one time were together in another era, that’s one question I had,” said Sen. Bob Gordon. “The other is the question of timing. Why now?”

Huttle told reporters today that the Assembly could be prepared to take action against the measure by Monday’s voting session. Lawmakers noted that the person who could answer their questions, the Commissioner of Health, was unavailable for comment.

The plan goes into effect in approximately 30 days unless both the Senate and Assembly pass a concurrent resolution opposing the reorganization. Sen. Vitale tells NJTV News he’s considering the move, but remains undecided.

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