VA official is pick for health commissioner

Shereef Elnahal of University Hospital.

A Veterans Affairs official from President Barack Obama’s administration was nominated Wednesday as Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s pick for health commissioner.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, former assistant deputy undersecretary for health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, would be the first Muslim-American to serve in the state’s cabinet if his nomination is approved.

“We need strong leadership in the Department of Health that recognizes and understands the challenges we face across our state — improving the quality and delivery of care and closing coverage gaps, restoring funding for the women’s health programs that have been zeroed-out for the past eight years, helping close the out-of-network loopholes that erode affordability and ensuring a fair and equitable system of charity care that our urban and safety-net hospitals need and rely upon,” Murphy said in a statement. “The commissioner must remain vigilant, given the winds blowing up from Washington. New Jersey must be a leader in fighting against current and future efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act. And, with the failure of the Congressional Republican leadership to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, vital care for 230,000 New Jersey kids is in danger of disappearing altogether. I am confident that Dr. Elnahal has the experience necessary to tackle these pressing issues and fight for New Jersey residents. It is my great honor to announce his nomination as the next commissioner of the Department of Health.”

Elnahal, 32, grew up in Linwood and Galloway Township, where his parents moved after immigrating from Egypt.

Former DOH Commissioner Poonam Alaigh, whom Elnahal worked under at the VA, said that, despite his lack of managerial experience, Elnahal has the right attitude for the job.

“At a time like this, it’s so important to have that innovative background,” she said. “He’s always been innovative and rolled up his sleeves and has a can-do attitude and mentality about it.”

Elnahal was previously a White House fellow before moving into his role at the VA.

Alaigh, who understands the role he could step into, said that, if she could offer him one piece of advice, it would be: “Make sure you stay true to what the role is. And collaboration. It really is about teamwork. Surround yourself with the right people. The more he connects with the community and true vanguards of change in New Jersey, and we have so many of them, the quicker he can implement the right solutions for our state.”

The Department of Health oversees Public Health Services, Health Systems, Integrated Health, Office of Population Health and the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. It enforces regulations and provides licensing for health facilities.

“The health challenges that many of New Jersey’s residents face could not be more urgent,” Elnahal said. “Too many in New Jersey are afflicted with opioid addiction and other serious health conditions, with recovery so hard for themselves and their loved ones. Too many of our state’s residents who depend on mental health care find it difficult to get the support they need from qualified health professionals, not to mention other resources that our state could be offering them. And too many New Jerseyans struggle to pay medical bills — whether it’s high monthly insurance premiums or surprise, out-of-pocket costs. I look forward to working with Gov.-elect Murphy as we begin the difficult and necessary work of strengthening New Jersey’s health systems, and ensuring no New Jerseyan slips through the cracks.”

The nomination of Elnahal continues to establish Murphy’s commitment to diversity in his cabinet, and the Muslim community in New Jersey applauded it.

“We are encouraged to see that Gov.-elect Murphy is embracing the diversity of New Jersey by reflecting that diversity in his cabinet,” said James Sues, executive director of CAIR-NJ, the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “His nomination of Dr. Shereef Elnahal as the state’s first Muslim cabinet official is representative of the governor-elect’s efforts to give all state residents a voice in his government, and he should surely be applauded for that.”

Passaic Freeholder Assad Akhter, a Muslim-American as well, also applauded the nomination.

“Dr. Shereef Elnahal is the epitome of the American dream — the son of doctors who immigrated from Egypt, he has dedicated his life to public service and has gone from New Jersey to Harvard and then to Washington, and now is returning to the Garden State to serve as our next commissioner of health. His appointment shows once again that Phil Murphy is committed not only to an administration that is representative of the people it serves, but also that he is bringing in the best and brightest minds to help move our state forward,” he said.