Three of Gov. Phil Murphy’s cabinet nominees easily won approval from a state Senate committee Thursday, including the new health commissioner who pledged to improve the state’s notoriously restrictive medicinal marijuana program.
Praising their “amazing” resumes, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Shereef Elnahal as Health Department commissioner and Carole Johnson as Human Services commissioner.
The panel spent the most time questioning Elnahal and offering suggestions on what his priorities should be as New Jersey’s top health official.
Making medicinal marijuana more accessible to patients beyond the five dispensaries serving nearly 16,000 should be at or near the top of the list, said Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.
“Wherever we go on marijuana — whether it’s legalization, decriminalization — I think it is really imperative this gets strengthened out very quickly, so medical marijuana program actually helps the people it was designed to help,” Weinberg said.
The former undersecretary for Health for Quality, Safety, and Value in the Veterans Health Administration in the Obama administration, Elnahal said his department was in the midst of a 60-day audit that will produce recommendations for improving the program.
But when Scutari pressed him for details, Elnahal refused to discuss any specific changes beyond the options Murphy outlined in January, which included expanding the number outlets where cannabis is sold and how much patients may buy a month.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the governor,” he said.
Members of the committee also asked about other pressing health issues.
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said the health department should allow smaller community hospitals to perform non-emergency angioplasties, a routine artery-clearing procedure and a reliable revenue generator in a competitive health care market.
New Jersey is an “antiquated backwater” for being one of two states requires elective angioplasties to be done at hospitals licensed to perform cardiac surgery in cases of an emergency, he said.
A study performed led by Johns Hopkins, Elnahal’s alma mater, Doherty noted, found the procedure was safely done in the smaller hospitals. “You have the magic power to change this,” he said.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, suggested Elnahal get involved in the state’s long-unaddressed problem of people receiving surprise medical bills from hospitals and medical providers they did not know were outside their insurance network.
Elnahal said he and the Department of Banking and Insurance would implement whatever law is passed, and one is working its way through the committee-vetting process.
When Cardinale pressed him for ideas, Elnahal said, “I have to do a little more homework on that, myself.”
When it came to Johnson’s hearing, no members asked any question. Scutari told her that it was “a testament to your background.”
Johnson served on the White House Domestic Policy Council health team. Previously, she was a research scientist and lecturer at the George Washington University’s Center for Health Policy Research.
Weinberg said she was concerned about the impact on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to close two developmental centers, and their “movement into group homes, some of which are not suitable to care for them.”
Since her nomination seven weeks ago, Johnson she has been meeting with people who live and work at the state’s five developmental centers, the private companies that operate community housing, and concerned families.
“I think it’s important we continue to have a robust conversation in New Jersey about the continuum of services, ensuring people have choice and families are able to get the care that is most appropriate for their loved ones,” Johnson said.
The full 40-member Senate must approve the nominations to make them permanent.