Conversations with HJM
By: Sam Friedman, Government Relations Associate
“I remember going to the social services office with my mother, and I spoke a little English, and she would volunteer my services … to translate for people that were waiting for their interview. And at that young age, I learned about the needs of the community and about the disparities that exist in our communities. My mom would call me … ‘la abogadita,’ which means the ‘little lawyer’ in English …I decided early on that I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be the voice for my community … and I’ve done it all my life …”
Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D) represents District 21 in the Maryland House of Delegates and serves as the Vice Chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Long before her election to the House in 2006, Peña-Melnyk was a staunch supporter of policies to address health inequity in black and brown communities and is currently considered one of the State’s foremost advocates in this regard. Earlier this month she was recognized by Latina Republic as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Women in Maryland.”
Peña-Melnyk was born in the Dominican Republic and traveled to New York City as a young child with her family. Graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, she went on to earn a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Buffalo State College and a Juris Doctorate from the University at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. After working as an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Peña-Melnyk went on to serve as an Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, U.S. Department of Justice (the DOJ). Working at the DOJ, she eventually relocated from D.C. to Prince George’s County, Maryland where she lives today with her husband and three children.
As reported by the Maryland Department of Health, Prince George’s County leads the State in the highest number of COVID-19 cases and, unfortunately, has lost close to 2000 lives. In response, Peña-Melnyk who represents parts of Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County, is hard at work preparing for the 2022 Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) to continue to address those failures in current Maryland law, regulations and policies that contributed the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 in Prince George’s County. The Delegate, however, was kind enough to find time for a conversation with me to answer a few questions about her dedication to public service and the upcoming session of the MGA.
How did you get your start in public service?
I remember going to the social services office with my mother, and I spoke a little English, and she would volunteer my services … to translate for people that were waiting for their interview. And at that young age, I learned about the needs of the community and about the disparities that exist in our communities. My mom would often times call me ‘la abogadita,’ which means the ‘little lawyer’ in English, so you have to be careful about the power of words, especially around children…I decided early on that I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be the voice for my community. I know that there was a period in my youth when I thought I would go into fashion…But then I seriously reconsidered that and decided to go to college, and I am the first in my family to go to law school as well. So, it was just those experiences growing up that really focused me on service. And I’ve done it all my life and that’s where it comes from.
What brought you to the Maryland area?
So, what brought me to the Maryland area was my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time. We met in law school, and we actually lived in Washington D.C. for a couple years and then we moved to Hyattsville and then to College Park, so we have been in this area, in the DC/Maryland area since…1992 at least. And we got married and we ended up buying a home in Hyattsville, then another home in College Park and raising our children in this area and we love it. It’s a very diverse area.
With the legislative session coming up, what steps are you taking to prepare? How do you get ready?
I start working on my bills really early, usually seven or eight months before I file them. So, when there’s an issue … I bring everyone to the table, whether you are for it or against it, I try to compromise, I bring [in] a drafter early on, so by the time I file … [my legislation] in January, my bills are pretty much ready to go, because we have worked on all the b
arriers and have agreed on the language. So, this particular session, I am working on a couple of bills that provide access to healthcare. We have done a great job at covering people that are uninsured, and a lot of my bills have dealt with that. But we have not yet addressed the undocumented population who live in our state, so I’m working on a bill to provide coverage for undocumented pregnant women and children.
I’m working on two public health bills as well, because as we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic this last year and a half, that public health is really important and that we have social determinants of health that really affect the health of a person and especially if they live in certain zip codes. So, we learned from COVID that out of the 24 jurisdictions in Maryland, the 23 counties and Baltimore City, that the county with the highest number of COVID-19 cases is Prince George’s County. The zip code in the entire state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases is 20783, which is an immigrant community in that county. So, it has affected the black and brown community greatly. And it’s because of those social determinants of health … [for example] … the way they live in very crowded places. I remember helping families that [had]ten family members living in one apartment, and one got COVID, so they all got COVID. It’s also the lack of education, lack of transportation, not making enough money, it’s the environment, all those social determinants of health affect them greatly. So, a lot of the bills that I am working on deal with those issues.
What makes you excited for this upcoming 2022 session?
I’m excited to be working on public health and continuing the fight, you know, against the COVID virus, making sure that now children five to eleven are going to be able to get vaccinated, making sure that we go out there and give the information to the community, we educate the community, that we do outreach, that we allocate the vaccine in an equitable way as well, and that we get to the communities that really need it. I’m also excited about rebuilding our childcare system because that’s really important … There are many children that did not do well taking their classes from home, virtual classes. There are children that have not registered [to go back to school] … Where are they? We need to find them.
I’m excited about redistricting, you know we are doing a special session in December to do Congressional redistricting, but we’re also meeting in January during the regular session to do the legislative redistricting as well. There’s the budget, we have a surplus right now, but that’s not going to be the case permanently, so we have to find a way to boost the economy. We have also, which I am part of, a House Referendum and Legalization Workgroup… there are 18 states and two territories and Washington D.C., they have legalized recreational use of cannabis for adults, so … the Speaker has put together this work group where we have been meeting already where we are going to look at the regulation, licensing and oversight … what would that look like? [We will] look at the criminal statutes, public health impact, and whether or not we should have a referendum. So, we will be making recommendations about recreational cannabis for the Maryland General Assembly in the upcoming session. There are so many issues that we always address, in a very humble way, we’re very active, and very involved, and I am very honored to be part of that process, to introduce legislation that will have an impact on the six million people that live here in Maryland.
In the past, empowering women and minorities in Maryland and the MGA has been a priority for you, how do you see that continuing moving forward?
I see that continuing because it’s important, especially with what happened in Texas. Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-16) is working on a bill, and that bill will come to the Health and Government Operations Committee. So, I look forward to working on that, to making sure that women have access to healthcare and abortions. You know, that is their choice. To make sure that choice is protected in Maryland. So, I look forward to continuing that work …
Going back a few topics to health care equity, I was wondering if you could explain how drug pricing plays into that and how you expect that issue to move forward in Maryland?
I was actually the lead sponsor of the bill that created the [Prescription] Drug Affordability Board … the first prescription drug affordability board in the nation. I worked with advocates like Healthcare for All and AARP and their testimony was amazing. So that board is actually doing the work right now, holding meetings, where they will look at the prices of certain drugs, high-cost drugs, and make recommendations as to what the State should be willing to pay. So that is our work in Maryland, we learned during the testimony, during the hearings, that many people were making the decision of whether to pay their rent or their mortgage or buy food, or to buy their drugs. The Federal government is not acting to control drug costs, so the states are the ones that are taking the lead. And in Maryland, we decided to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to look at the whole chain and make recommendations.
How do you expect the session to play out as far as virtually, in-person, compared to last year? How does that affect Maryland’s legislative process?
Well as you know, last year it was virtual, and people, our citizens had the opportunity to be heard, they had an opportunity to come to submit their testimony in writing, to give oral testimony, we held the hearings live, you know, online. We made ourselves available for every hearing … we did it live, we allowed people to come … I mean this is their House, right? To make sure that they were a part of the process and we made it transparent, and I think it worked really well. I am not aware yet of what the process is for this coming session. I would imagine that it will be something similar or hybrid, I’m not sure yet, because the numbers of COVID cases are still rising, we have the Delta Variant … safety is really important and our health, but also transparency is important, so people can be part of this democratic process. So we are going to do our best to make sure that people’s voice, that your voice in Annapolis, is heard and that you can participate.