The MSBA recently welcomed Democratic State Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk from Maryland’s 21st District in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties, as part of its Coffee and Conversations With Legislators program. Del. Peña-Melnyk met virtually with former State Senator Bobby Zirkin to discuss this year’s legislative session, her personal and professional background and her road to Annapolis, and how MSBA members can stay involved and connect with legislators.
Del. Peña-Melnyk has been a member of the House of Delegates since January of 2007. She is the Vice-Chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, which deals with public health and she has worked to improve the healthcare system by making it more efficient and in line with the needs of everyday Marylanders. Her legislation to digitize medical records is improving health care delivery and lowering costs. She has also moved many bills into law dealing with women’s and children’s health, including bills on family planning, mammograms, childhood obesity and suicide prevention.
Del. Peña-Melnyk also leads on matters of policing and criminal justice. She was one of ten Delegates that served on the Workgroup on Public Safety and Policing Practices, but her strong record on these issues predates her involvement with the workgroup. One of her bills made Maryland the first state to count inmates of state prisons in the place where they lived when arrested, which helps boost representation for the poor communities with the most problems.
She came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 8-years-old. She, her mother, and her sister landed in Washington Heights, NY. Her mother was a single mom with a third-grade education who did not speak English, but she instilled in Del. Peña-Melnyk the importance of a good work ethic. Her mother used to call her la abogadita – the little lawyer, because she could never stay quiet and was always helping people. Her mother’s moniker for her turned out to be prophetic, and she was the first in her family to go to college, followed by law school. She began her legal career working in the public defender’s office before becoming a prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice. She always had a love for service, which is what led to seek a career in politics.
Del. Peña-Melnyk explained that the Health and Government Operations Committee deals with bills addressing matters like the regulation of health occupations, insurance, and public health. In the past session, the Committee handled a bill dealing with the issue of remote notarization. Unfortunately, the bill came in at the end of the session and the Committee wanted more time to process it and make sure it did not have any unintended consequences, and therefore, it did not pass. She believes that a bill allowing for remote notarization will pass this year.
Del. Peña-Melnyk’s focus in the most recent legislative session was health disparities and access to health care. She discussed how Prince George’s County, and specifically people of color and immigrants living within the County, had the highest rates of COVID-19. This was, in part, due to social determinants, like a lack of transportation and shared living spaces. This disparate impact highlighted the need for public health funding and to think outside the box. As such, Del. Peña-Melnyk, introduced a bill that would require implicit bias training for all healthcare providers in Maryland. The bill passed and went into effect in October. She also introduced the Shirley Nathan-Pulliam Health Equity Act, which requires all of the departments of the government to develop a health equity framework for the policies within their departments with the goal of helping marginalized communities. She introduced a bill allowing for the permanent expansion of the use of telehealth as well which, in part, provides reimbursement for audio appointments.
Del. Peña-Melnyk then discussed a bill regarding overdose prevention sites, which she stated are a proven solution to the opioid crisis. The bill would authorize safe injection sites with trained staffers, including doctors and nurses, who can respond immediately if there is an overdose. There has never been a documented overdose at a supervised injection area. She noted that they do not provide drugs, the sites simply provide a clean and safe place for people struggling with addiction. Counseling is available at such sites as well. No jurisdiction would be forced to house a site; instead, locations would have to request authorization.
Del. Peña-Melnyk and Sen. Zirkin also touched on the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis. Del. Peña-Melnyk is part of a marijuana legalization workgroup, where they discuss the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, the status of the law in other states, and the possibility of the question going to referendum. She is hopeful that they will be able to develop a good recommendation for the upcoming session. Lastly, she discussed the creation of the office of immigrant affairs.
You can listen to the other portions of the conversation here.