The following is an edited transcript of an MDAdvantage podcast with Steve Adubato, PhD, and Senator Vin Gopal that was recorded on January 26, 2022. Senator Gopal, who represents the 11th Legislative District in New Jersey, discussed his accomplishments and future goals as a State Senator, the telehealth legislation that was signed into law in December 2021 and his efforts to bring civility and a bipartisan work ethic to the state legislature.
ADUBATO: We are honored today to be joined by State Senator Vin Gopal, who represents the 11th Legislative District. He serves as the Senate Majority Conference Leader and was recently named as the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He also serves as the Vice Chair of the State Government, Wagering and Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee and is a member of the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.
Senator Gopal, can you describe the 11th Legislative District, which you proudly represent?
SENATOR GOPAL: The 11th Legislative District is in Monmouth County and is comprised of very different communities. It is a suburban and urban district of 18 towns, ranging from Colts Neck and Freehold in the west, to the central part of the county, including Ocean Township, Tinton Falls, Red Bank, and then up and down the shoreline from Long Branch all the way through Deal, Allenhurst, Interlaken, and down to Asbury Park and Neptune.
ADUBATO: Senator, you got into elective politics at a very young age. What drove you to want to run for the state legislature?
SENATOR GOPAL: I was always interested in politics. I had a small business when I got out of college, which was right at the height of the recession in 2009. I worked in an embroidery store and learned how to make clothes and screen print. I started to get involved in local business interests with the Hazlet Township Business Owners Association, which was like their local Chamber of Commerce. The township was looking to bring a Walmart into the town and give it a 15-year tax break, which would have put everybody in my little shopping center out of business. We organized together, and I got very involved, attending every council meeting, and ultimately the town dropped the plan with Walmart. It was at that moment when I fell in love with local politics.
ADUBATO: You’re one of the youngest members of the State Senate. As formerly the youngest member of the lower house at a very different point in my career, I served only one term. You just moved into your second term. In a very short period of time, you’ve accomplished a great deal. What accomplishments are you most proud of so far as a legislator?
“We accomplish things in a bipartisan way, such as increasing extraordinary special education funding, increasing mental health funding across all 21 counties and looking at school district regionalization”
SENATOR GOPAL: I’m proud of many things that have required the Legislature to work hard together. Civility and bipartisanship are really important to me. In March 2022, former Republican State Chair Senator Joe Kyrillos launched a conversation series at Monmouth University. We continue to push civility and the importance of working across the aisle. That’s a big difference between New Jersey and Washington, DC. We accomplish things in a bipartisan way, such as increasing extraordinary special education funding, increasing mental health funding across all 21 counties and looking at school district regionalization, which is a big issue because there are more than 600 districts in New Jersey. I partnered with former Senate President Sweeney, Senator Oroho and my colleague here in Monmouth County, Senator O’Scanlon, in a very bipartisan way to get the school districts to look at sharing expenses, such as information technology (IT) costs, snow removal and waste management. Those are some of the things I’m proud of. During my election last year, I received more than 5,000 crossover votes from Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican candidate. I’m proud of that because it shows that I can be a proud Democrat who can work together in a bipartisan way, but it has to start with civility and affordability.
ADUBATO: I’m struck by what you just said about the work you’re doing with former State Senator Joe Kyrillos at Monmouth University.
SENATOR GOPAL: It’s going to be part of President Pat Leahy’s program. We’re going to be holding four sessions a year. The first one was held on March 2, when we hosted Senate President Scutari and Senator Oroho. We had the political science students listen to a discussion about civility and about how to work together and how to have strong disagreements on policy. We hope to expand on that over the next year, four times a year, and create a model to encourage students as they’re going through undergraduate studies throughout New Jersey to have strong, passionate opinions on state policy. They should fight for what they believe in, but without relying on social media and the name-calling that has become so prevalent. First and foremost, we’ve got to be respectful to each other as human beings. The program will also be open to the public.
ADUBATO: What can you tell us about S-2559, the new law signed on December 21, 2021, by Governor Murphy that provides healthcare professionals reimbursement for telemedicine?
SENATOR GOPAL: This was a bill that took over a year to get done. As you can imagine, we had to battle with the health insurance companies. We also faced Governor Murphy, who vetoed the bill initially. This law provides pay parity to patients. This is a personal issue for me as someone who has struggled with depression my whole life. I’ve been very open about it on the Senate floor. I had a number of constituents who had mental health challenges in the beginning of COVID-19, and they were concerned as they tried to get an appointment and couldn’t because telemedicine didn’t cover the mental health services. Their insurance company simply wouldn’t cover it, and while we had waivers during the pandemic, it wasn’t the security that a lot of residents needed. Medical practices across the state have successfully utilized telemedicine, especially during this last surge of the Omicron variant. There are security measures in place. You can’t simply say, “I want to do telemedicine.” You have to have a brick-and-mortar office here in New Jersey. We put some really clear parameters in the legislation to prevent insurance fraud. We think it’s a really good bill that can serve as a model across the country. Again, if you need a physical, or if a physician needs to see and touch you to make a proper evaluation, those services are not eligible. But we’re trying to cover all those other services and make sure that insurance companies reimburse the same amount.
ADUBATO: Senator Gopal, you have been very open about your experience with depression. Why have you chosen to be so public around a mental health issue that so many New Jerseyans and Americans are struggling with, but so few, particularly public officials, choose to talk about?
“I think it’s important for people to hear that mental health issues are common and need to be addressed like any other health issue…”
SENATOR GOPAL: The most important thing, when you read the academic research, is that people need to break the stigmas associated with mental health and to raise awareness. The number one thing, especially as I step into my new role as Senate Education Chair (similar to what my predecessor, now Majority Leader Ruiz, was starting) is to recognize that we’re not only going to have huge learning loss challenges in the state. We’re also going to have massive mental health challenges resulting from COVID-19. Some people are scared to go out. There are a lot of extremes. School children have been impacted in countless ways. I think it’s important for people to hear that mental health issues are common and need to be addressed like any other health issue, such as breaking your arm. It’s okay to take medication; it’s okay to see a therapist; it’s okay to seek treatment. One of the things I’m proud about accomplishing last year is that we successfully got $5 million into the budget to expand the school resource program. I’ve got a great program in my district at Red Bank Regional called The Source, which is a mental health program in the school district. During my tenure as Education Chair, my goal is to expand that program throughout all of our school districts. It is helpful for me to be able to say, “Listen, I ran for State Senate. I was successful against a tough incumbent, and I also struggled with mental health. It’s a part of life.” We all go through different challenges and struggles, but the more we can comfortably be open about it, I think it helps other people with their own challenges.
ADUBATO: Senator, you mentioned this whole telehealth issue, the legislation that is now law. As the situation with COVID-19 hopefully continues to improve, is telehealth is going to be a permanent way of life?
SENATOR GOPAL: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s important. Especially on the mental health side, a lot of people are comfortable receiving therapy and other mental health services via Zoom or via other similar outlets. There are a lot of different venues. As long as we can prove that it’s 100 percent the same as being in person for that specific service, there’s no issue.
ADUBATO: Why should we be optimistic and hopeful about New Jersey and its future, particularly given the work being done by the state legislature together with Governor Murphy?
SENATOR GOPAL: New Jersey is an incredible place with proximity to New York and Philadelphia. We have an beautiful shoreline and a wonderfully diverse population. We have so much to offer, and we are collectively working hard to show civility, show bipartisanship, and to be innovative in the years ahead. We need to figure out how to keep seniors here in the state, so they’re not moving to the Florida and the Carolinas, and also make sure we take care of our most vulnerable residents. I’m cautiously optimistic, and I really see good days ahead for the Garden State.