New York State Assemblywoman Maureen O'Connell is used to running for office. For seven years, she served as both a trustee and deputy mayor of the Incorporated Village of East Williston. In 1997, she ran as the Republican nominee for town supervisor of the Town of North Hempstead. Then in 1998, she won the 17th Assembly District seat capturing 83 percent of the vote. When it came to her election in the assembly, the first by a woman in the 17th Assembly District, O'Connell apparently heard her calling.
This November, she will be seeking re-election to her seat in the Assembly and she points to recent legislation passed in New York State as a strong point in her campaign. The state did exceptionally well this past year in several areas, she said.
The Assembly's health committee, of which O'Connell is a ranking member, was able to accomplish many important initiatives such as expanding Child Health Plus, which allows for insurance for every child in the state. Also, O'Connell mentioned the creation of Family Health Plus, which is designed to provide health coverage to low or middle income families who do not have access to affordable health insurance. "The creation of Family Health Plus and the expansion of Child Health Plus really filled that remaining gap in terms of giving people the opportunity to be insured in healthcare services," O'Connell said.
As far as prescription drug coverage for seniors, O'Connell said the Elderly Prescription Insurance Coverage (EPIC) plan has been signed into law. This allows those seniors who have an annual income $36,000 for an individual or $54,000 for married couples to experience reduced co-pays, enrollment fees and deductibles. "All the things you're hearing about in this presidential race and the senate race, we've already done in New York," she said. "In the healthcare realm, I think these things are really fabulous. The state is in very, very good fiscal shape and it allowed us to use the revenue we have to provide central services."
Another important issue that O'Connell said was important to her was more support in the state's budget for state facilities dealing with the West Nile Virus. "That was very important to me, coming from Nassau County, because, although most of the rest of the state did not have the problems we had here in Nassau County, we needed this lab to be beefed up this year because of the problems we had last summer," she said, adding that last year tests for the virus had to be sent to other states. "We put a lot of money into beefing up the state labs to work with this county to be able to identify infected birds and mosquitoes so that we quickly knew in Nassau what we were doing." Funds were also allocated to support the county's mosquito control programs.
Since O'Connell is both a registered nurse, the only one serving in the state legislature, and a practicing attorney, the issues which concern her involve healthcare and education.
She considers herself a proponent of HMO reform and cited the institution of a law that, in some cases holds HMOs responsible for treating certain patients, as a significant initiative in getting residents proper care.
According to O'Connell, if an HMO denies approval for coverage or care, the patient can demand an external review, an independent review of the medical necessity of the proposed treatment. The panel, O'Connell said, is funded by the state with no relationship to the HMO or insurance company. "It allows patients relief for any denial of care. I'm pleased to say that of all the appeals that have come in, almost half have been reversed so I believe that this is a process that is working," she said. "It is a very important protection that we built in."
As a member of the American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Detection Team, O'Connell said she is concerned about the high rates of breast cancer on Long Island and the environment. Funds in the state budget have been appropriated to continue with cancer mapping. The preliminary report of the mapping process by zip code, which came out in early spring, will be enhanced and expanded upon. "Ultimately what I would like to see is a merging of superfund sites with a mapping of incidents of cancer and the zip codes to see if we can identify any potential environmental factors," she said, adding that she is in favor of more research.
Also, in the area of healthcare, the assemblywoman was also proud that the mandated reimbursement for prostate screening passed this year. She is hoping a law will eventually be passed to lower the legal blood alcohol level to .08. "The federal government is threatening to withhold federal transportation funds if states don't enact a lower blood alcohol level for DWI cases," she said.
On the important issue of education, O'Connell said students have recently benefited on both the public school level and the college level. An important initiative was making up to $10,000 per year for college tuition tax deductible, she said. In addition, eligibility for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) has increased to make college more affordable.
Also, for the fourth consecutive year, the state was able to secure a record increase for school aid. An increase in school aid has become practically a necessity because of the rising New York State standards, which have, in turn, increased education costs.
If re-elected, O'Connell said she would like to see a further expansion of support of education that will allow students to meet increasing state standards. She also believes lawmakers can do more in the field of healthcare. "We need to expand coverage for long-term care. Long-term care is going to be a serious issue. We have so many people living longer lives, wanting to live at home rather than in alternative settings. We need to develop strategies to care for people within a long-term care context," O'Connell said.
A statewide referendum that will be on the ballot come election day is a $3.8 billion transportation and road/bridge bond to improve transportation in the state which will be an important issue, according to O'Connell. "I have many incorporated villages in my assembly district. I know what it's like for villages to do large road projects. It's a very costly thing so my goal this year is to garner as much access to that $3.8 billion if it passes to assist villages in doing some large road projects, infrastructure upgrades and transportation projects," she said.
Having served two years in the Assembly, O'Connell said she has enjoyed the term and the opportunity to put her knowledge of healthcare and local government to work. She said she enjoyed the opportunity to develop legislation that helps the local communities as well as formulate policies on the state level. "I really do love the Assembly," she added.
Now, O'Connell, a graduate of Mineola High School, says she wants to keep using her work ethic, which was imposed on her by her mother, a work ethic that allowed her to earn both a nursing degree and a juris doctorate, and to continue to improve New York State and the 17th Assembly District.