Commissioners say reorganization of mental-health and addiction services benefits patients and providers alike

Carole Johnson & Shereef Elnahal
Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson and Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal

Oversight of community-based behavioral health services is back where it belongs, according to New Jersey officials, and the restructured system is working better to support local providers and ensure patients in state psychiatric hospitals are getting the treatment and other services they need.

That was the message delivered yesterday by Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson and Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who testified together before the Assembly Human Services Committee on the latest restructuring of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. DMHAS, one of state government’s largest divisions, was moved last year under former Gov. Chris Christie from one department to the other, but switched back under Gov. Phil Murphy starting this summer.

Among other things, Johnson said the changes made under Murphy, which were finalized on October 1, allow the state to be more effective in combatting the opioid epidemic, capitalizing on federal funding, and assisting those who are discharged from psychiatric hospitals to secure housing and treatment in the community.

The shift has also enabled officials at the DOH to advance regulatory changes that should soon provide for more integrated physical and behavioral healthcare, Elnahal said, an issue of particular interest to Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Ocean), the committee chair. The move has also supported the DOH’s effort to improve operations at the state’s four psychiatric hospitals, he said.

And through the changes, staff members at the two departments have forged an effective working relationship, Elnahal added, making connections that are especially important for the many patients suffering from multiple medical, mental health and substance-abuse conditions. “The patients have always had an integrated set of problems. We are trying to build an integrated system to try and meet those needs,” he told the committee.

System had been in turmoil

Both commissioners made clear that aspects of the behavioral health system were in turmoil when Gov. Phil Murphy’s team took over, but they did not mention former Gov. Chris Christie by name. Elnahal said he learned his first day on the job that one of the psychiatric hospitals was in danger of losing its national accreditation; Johnson described previous oversight changes that led to disruption in critical technology services and other disruptions in operations.


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