The Star-Ledger

Praise And Criticism For Christie's Health Budget

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, March 12, 2013

By Susan K. Livio / The Star-Ledger

Trenton — Gov. Chris Christie's decision to accept billions of dollars in federal aid to expand the Medicaid program earned him wide praise today as the Assembly Budget Committee began tackling the governor's proposed spending plan.

But that doesn't mean everyone was happy with the governor.

In a six-hour hearing of the Assembly Budget Committee, advocates criticized Christie for proposing cuts to everything from cancer research and hospital aid to a program designed to get people to quit smoking.

For the second time, Christie proposed eliminating $1 million for the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research. Alison Gammie, a Princeton University lecturer and researcher whose work studying colorectal cancer was stalled by funding cuts, said such a reduction would jeopardize "cancer research progress." She asked the Assembly Budget Committee to reinstate the money, just as lawmakers did last year.

"New Jersey risks losing some of its most brilliant citizens, who out of financial necessity will move to locations such as Texas, North Carolina and Florida — states that have made a significant commitment to financing cancer research," said Gammie.

Christie's proposed budget also includes no funds for programs that prevent kids from taking up smoking or help people trying to quit, said Ethan Hasbrouck, advocacy director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Christie drained the account to zero last year.

"New Jersey has now dropped to 50th in the recent ranking of state support for tobacco control programs," Hasbrouck said.

Jean Otersen, policy director of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union representing 12,000 hospital workers, questioned why Christie eliminated the $30 million hospital stabilization fund, designed to help struggling hospitals, especially those that treat a large number of uninsured patients.

"Without that fund, Christ Hospital in Jersey City would probably not be standing, among others," she said.

Betsy Ryan, president of the New Jersey Hospital Association, the largest hospital lobby, later testified that the federal government discontinued its support of the fund, meaning it will no longer match the state dollar-for-dollar.

In the current budget year, the health department used the $15 million in federal funds from the stabilization fund to boost graduate medical school spending by $5 million; $1.6 million to increase funding for newborn screening; $8 million for charity care, state Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said.

"Is the need still there?" budget committee Chairman Vincent Prieto, (D-Hudson) asked Ryan.

She said New Jersey's 71 hospitals are generally faring better, with about 30 percent losing money — down from 50 percent about five years ago. She credited the governor for helping stabilize the industry by once again proposing $675 million in charity care to help treat the uninsured.

Christie has said he expects 100,000 low-income people will join the expanded Medicaid program in 2014, saving the state $228 million because the Obama administration is absorbing the costs.

But Ann Vardeman of New Jersey Citizen Action said those savings won't be achieved if people don't enroll. "We are disappointed that the governor has not included any funding for outreach to find and enroll those who will be newly eligible," she said.

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