Christie’s 11th hour move begs the question, 'Why?'

In the waning hours of June, while all eyes in Trenton were transfixed on the looming state shutdown, Governor Christie quietly served notice that he intended to transfer the state’s mental health and addiction services from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Health.

This move went largely unnoticed for days until the tumult caused by the shutdown had subsided. It was then that we began hearing from advocates and providers in the community who were alarmed by this sudden policy shift and the impact it will have on some of our state’s most vulnerable.

In order to gauge the impact of this move, which involves over 4,300 employees and a $1.16 billion budget, I co-chaired a joint-legislative hearing in Trenton this week where we listened to several hours of testimony from providers and advocates on this surprising and massive restructuring proposal.

One thing advocates made repeatedly clear is that the Christie administration did not consult with any of them to determine how this overhaul will impact those suffering from mental health and addiction issues.

At the end of the hearing, we were left with many more questions than answers. But the most pressing, and loaded, question of them all is: Why?

Why would the governor wait until he has less than six months left in his term to order a major departmental restructuring, especially when the Legislature has 60 days by law to vet the proposal?

Why, with the state of healthcare in limbo at the federal level and a new state administration poised to take over in six months, would he consciously choose to inject turmoil into an already chaotic situation?

Why, given the opioid addiction crisis in our state, would you transfer these services to the Department of Health, whose experience is largely regulatory, when the Department of Human Services has far more experience and expertise administering services to large populations?

Why, when 50 to 70 percent of individuals with developmental disorders also suffer from behavioral health issues, would you force them and their families to have to deal with two different departments when navigating an already difficult system?

Why, when the Department of Health is inexperienced in the oversight of specialized psychiatric hospitals, would you place this critical system under their purview?

Why, when the Department of Human Services provides support, such as housing and employment assistance, would you segregate services that are critical to the successful treatment and recovery of mental health and addiction disorders?

Furthermore, why would you separate behavioral health services from the department that administers Medicaid – introducing another level of bureaucracy – when Medicaid is the source of funding for many of those services?

The only thing we do know for certain at this point is that a restructuring of this magnitude should not be undertaken without answers to these questions.

The Christie administration has stated that the goal of this restructuring is to integrate behavioral health and medical care to treat the “whole person.” While I agree with this mission wholeheartedly, the hasty, unilateral approach they’ve employed leaves little confidence that this is being undertaken in the right manner. Mental health and addiction experts who testified at our hearing adamantly agree that this is not a viable way to make this happen.

In order to safeguard the health and welfare of everyone in New Jersey, the integration of mental health and addiction treatment services must be undertaken in a careful, deliberate manner following a thorough consultation and review with all vested stakeholders.

With that in mind, I am sponsoring a measure opposing the governor’s ill-advised reorganization plan and urging him to work with the Legislature and all stakeholders to make sure any change of this magnitude is carefully vetted.

On Monday, hopefully all eyes will be on Trenton when my colleagues in the Assembly and I vote on this measure in the light of day – not under the cloak of darkness at the 11th hour in June when all eyes are on an impending state shutdown.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat represents the 37th Legislative District and is the chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee.