CarePlus NJ founder Masciandaro, pioneer in behavioral health, looks back at legendary career — and offers thoughts for future

Joe Masciandaro is not just the founder and former CEO of Care Plus New Jersey, he’s an iconic figure in the mental health field in New Jersey and the metro area — someone who has seen a dramatic change in how behavioral health is viewed over the course of a career of more than 50 years.

“My career has bridged from the time when institutionalization was the only method of treatment for people with serious mental illness to now — a destigmatization of mental illness, which is creating a huge demand and recognition for the work that needs to be done.

“The biggest change is that mental health is now viewed as being part of health care, that’s really what it’s all about.”

Masciandaro, who retired from CarePlus NJ at the start of the year, is thrilled by all the advancements in care that have come about. But he also knows this: Behavioral health care still has a long way to go.

Masciandaro said destigmatization has led to an increase in diagnosis (a very good thing), but it hasn’t led to more practitioners in the field (a not-so-good thing) and it hasn’t led to greater insurance cost coverage (a bad thing).

“Removing stigma has increased recognition and the demand for services, but there’s been no corresponding efforts to incentivize people to go into the field,” he said. “It’s changing, but it’s going to take time to catch up. And it’s something we really need.”

It’s a fight Masciandaro has taken on since the 1960s, when he stumbled into a career that became a lifelong passion.


An immigrant from Italy, Masciandaro was eager to take up arms for his new country. It’s why he was a battalion commander during his ROTC days at St. Bonaventure. Upon graduation, he was eager to join the fight in Vietnam. An untimely attempt at humor unintentionally put a stop to it.

Masciandaro, trying to make his friends laugh, intentionally bombed the eye test during his physical exam. And, while the examiner knew he was joking, Army regulations required Masciandaro to get a more detailed exam. It was then that the army discovered he had keratoconus, a condition that is easily correctable — but one that prohibits someone from serving in the military.

Masciandaro was crushed. He even appealed the decision.

Masciandaro was a battalion commander during his ROTC days at St. Bonaventure.

“My only career goal was to go into the military,” he said. “That was my way of giving back to my new country. I felt very passionately about it. I went to Fort Benning for basic training, and I aspired to be a paratrooper and an artillery officer. Just like that, it was over.”

Masciandaro was forced to fall back on a major he only took to get through to graduation: psychology.

It turned out to be a perfect match.

Since founding CarePlus NJ in 1978, Masciandaro has pioneered countless innovations to expand access to care for New Jersey’s most vulnerable populations, continually expanding CarePlus NJ’s integrated treatment options through nearly 80 programs for adults and children in northern New Jersey.

Under Masciandaro’s direction, CarePlus was one of only seven New Jersey agencies selected as a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic — a CCBHC, or a federal demonstration that expanded access to mental health care and addiction treatment, a model that has since expanded nationwide and is still being used today.

Masciandaro lists CarePlus’ efforts to combine behavioral health care and addiction treatment as one of its greatest moments.

“Forty years ago, your treatment depended on what door you went in,” he said. “If you went into substance abuse door, you got treated for substance abuse. If you went through a mental health door, you got treated for your mental health condition.

“We innovated a program that coordinated the care for the dually diagnosed. It’s something I’m very proud of.”


Masciandaro is happy his list of awards and accolades are too extensive to mention. He feels so many others deserve praise, too.

He credits Mary Ann Uzzi, a board member, for championing the stigma-free initiative that is now all across the state.

He credits Bergen New Bridge CEO Deb Visconi for helping CarePlus integrate into the hospital so seamlessly and successfully since they came together in 2017. Masciandaro said they have been able to enhance the scope of services and continuum of care, increasing the effectiveness of discharge to address recidivism — especially in the emergency room.

He credits Gov. Phil Murphy and others in the health department for bringing the issue of behavioral health into the mainstream, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This all-encompassing sense of care speaks to the origin of the Care Plus name.

“Our slogan has always been care — plus mental health care,” he said. “I’ve always believed that you have to treat the body and the mind, that it can’t just be one or the other.”

The philosophy has led to four pillars of care: mental health care, substance abuse, primary care and access to social support and services.

“The whole concept of looking at the whole person and making sure that everything gets addressed, not just the presenting problem, is something we take pride in.”

It’s why Masciandaro hopes the momentum behind behavioral health doesn’t slow. He wants to see more opportunities for professionals in the space — and more coverage to support treatment that doesn’t happen overnight.

“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.