The new Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency will be charged with working across all state agencies to develop a strategic plan for “consumer affordability, health care quality, cost transparency and taxpayer savings,” the Governor’s Office said.
BURLINGTON CITY — During his State of the State address last month, Gov. Phil Murphy promised to create a new state office devoted to decoding the mystery of how prices for prescription drugs and medical procedures are set and billed.
On Monday, the Democratic governor announced the new office’s director and promised his administration would continue to do everything in its power to ensure top quality health care is accessible and affordable for all state residents.
“The premise has always been and will continue to be that health care is a right, not a privilege,” Murphy said during the onset of a roundtable discussion about health care with members of his cabinet and various advocates, providers and residents.
“We have among, if not the best health care systems in the entire country, if not world, in New Jersey,” Murphy said. “The key is to make that health care affordable and accessible. It can’t just be there for some and not all of us.”
The roundtable was held at Southern Jersey Family Medical Center in Burlington City and featured the introduction of Shabnam Salih as the director of the new Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency.
The office will be charged with working across all state agencies to develop a strategic plan for “consumer affordability, health care quality, cost transparency and taxpayer savings,” the Governor’s Office said.
A key part of that work will involve gathering data from health care providers, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and other sources in order to both help consumers make informed decisions and help identify additional actions the state can take to reduce health care costs and achieve savings.
New Jersey has the fifth highest health care costs in the nation, advocates said.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-7 of Delran, said that reflects New Jersey’s overall high cost-of-living, but he said more can be done to help drive down costs and improve health care outcomes.
“I’ve believed for a long time that putting consumers in charge of their health care spending is an important thing. Consumers do that job well when they have the information they need to make decisions,” Conaway said. “You go to the store to buy bread. You know whether the bread costs more at ShopRite or at Acme or less. You have the sense of what eggs cost ... We don’t have that in health care and that is a problem. We need to make sure transparency applies to everyone in health care.”
Murphy said Salih will lead the state’s efforts. She has spent the last two years as a senior policy adviser to Murphy on issues such as the opioid epidemic, the individual health insurance market, state health, behavioral health and homelessness. Prior to joining the administration, she worked with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.
“We want to make sure everybody in the state has the facts. They understand exactly why they’re paying what they’re paying, what they’re getting in exchange for what they’re paying and where the opportunities to make health care affordable,” Murphy said.
Underscoring the importance of the issue, the roundtable also featured input from four of Murphy’s cabinet members: Commissioner of Health Judith Persichilli, Commissioner of Human Services Linda Johnson, Commissioner of Banking and Insurance Marlene Caride and state Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio.
Murphy, his administration and the New Jersey Legislature have already enacted several high-profile measures to try to address the high cost of health care in the state, as well as guard against the possible invalidation of the Affordable Care Act, which has been challenged as unconstitutional because the Republican tax overhaul of 2017 eliminated the requirement for people to have health insurance or face a tax penalty.
New Jersey created its own so-called “individual mandate” and also a reinsurance program that uses a mix of federal and state dollars to reimburse insurance companies for a portion of expensive claims. Doing so reduces those companies costs and risk and allows them to charge less for premiums.
Murphy’s administration has also moved toward a state-based insurance exchange where residents can shop for coverage, which officials believe should provide more flexibility and insulation if the Affordable Care Act is invalidated by federal courts.
More recently, Murphy also enacted a package of bills codifying into state law many of the federal law’s major components, including the protections for people with pre-existing conditions and the requirement that insurers allow children to remain covered under their parents’ insurance until they turn 26.
Residents at the roundtable said they continue to worry. Medford resident Kathleen Pulver said her adult daughter, Sara, has a rare kidney cancer and relies on the health care coverage offered through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchange.
“She pays $500 a month for insurance through the marketplace. But at least she has health care,” Pulver said. “But we realize if Sara or our other kids weren’t allowed to have insurance because of pre-existing conditions, we wouldn’t even be able to sell our house to cover (the expenses). It wouldn’t be enough.”
Murphy said he understands the importance of protecting people’s access to affordable coverage.
“It’s literally life and death in many cases,” he said. “We will do everything we can.”