Health care 2.0: Stearns will be key part of NJHA’s efforts in quickly changing post-pandemic landscape

Among the many amazing accomplishments by New Jersey’s hospitals and health care systems during the initial surge of the pandemic in 2020 are these:

  • The hospitals and health systems worked together — and with government health officials;
  • Everyone worked quickly.

The ability of a sector known to move slowly — one often forced to adjust around an endless series of rules and regulations — to function was impressive and life-saying. 

Now, it’s time to take a deeper dive into those numerous rules and regulations and find ways for all parts of the health care world — including pharmaceuticals and research companies — to make this type of efficiency a more regular occurrence.

This is just one of the reasons why the New Jersey Hospital Association moved to create the role of chief government relations officer — and why CEO Cathy Bennett was so happy to hire Christine Stearns for the role.

“What we saw was a change in a very deliberative area,” she said. “Health care is a science, and everything moves sequentially. It’s very black and white. 

“It always has been like navigating one of those gigantic-like cruise ships. All of the sudden, we found that we could be nimble in health care. 

Cathleen Bennett of the NJHA. — File photo

“We’ve got to figure out how to take some of these flexibilities that really allowed things to advance during the beginning of the pandemic and bake it into the DNA — what to do from a legal perspective, what to do from a regulatory perspective — and figure out how to drive those ideas in, because this pandemic-related enforcement and oversight is something which I think is going to be with us for a very long time.”

Stearns, highly regarded in the sector after two decades of work at Gibbons P.C. and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, announced last week she was joining the NJHA team Oct. 1. Bennett feels she can be effective on Day One.

“She gets health care,” Bennett said. “She gets it from a provider perspective and the payer side. She gets it from the pharmaceutical and the biomed side, too. Understanding all those pieces was just critical.”

Bennett said the spirit of “coopertition,” as she liked to call it, will be with the sector moving forward. They have seen how it worked during the pandemic.

“We worked with Dean Paranicas and his team at HINJ (HealthCare Institute of New Jersey),” she said. “They brought in the people who were developing the COVID vaccine. And, as they were developing it, they were talking to our clinicians, our CMOs and CEOs, and talking about the safety and the science behind the development — bringing everyone along.

“Because of that, when the vaccine got its (emergency approval), we had providers ready, willing and able to man these mass vaccination sites, and also deliver the message with confidence.

“That’s the thing I think Christine brings to the table; she knows how to knit together those pieces.”

Stearns, who will work out of the association’s office in Princeton, said she is eager to take on the new world of health care.

“Even before the pandemic, we were talking about how the pace of change has never been faster — and that pace of change in health care continues to accelerate,” she said. “But the conversation that we really haven’t had in New Jersey in a comprehensive way is, how does the sort of government oversight of the delivery of health care need to evolve?

“There’s a careful balance that government plays in ensuring quality standards are being met, but at the same time, not hindering the development of newer, high-quality health care systems. 

“I think that the hospitals play a key role in that conversation of how New Jersey continues to improve that oversight in a way that benefits everyone.”

That oversight touches all aspects of the sector. It’s the use of plastics and recyclables. It’s the use of energy — and the opportunity to be more efficient. It’s the huge role in real estate, impacting commercial properties.

Then, there’s the idea of economic development — and how health systems play an oversized role in that area in the communities they serve.

The chance to be a major player in those conversations was an opportunity Stearns said she couldn’t pass up.

“The role at an association is to try to look at issues broadly and understand how they impact the membership,” she said. “You have to be strategic about today’s problems as well as thinking about tomorrow’s problems. Often, at a law firm, you really are looking at how things impact your client more specifically. The focus is a shorter term in terms of the impact that it can make — and that’s something I really enjoyed. 

“I was very fortunate. I had a wonderful team at Gibbons, and I have wonderful clients that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. So, it was hard to move on, but the opportunity to return to looking, especially now, at some of these broader issues on behalf of the hospital industry is an opportunity I really couldn’t turn down.”