HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) – Aakash Shah, M.D., believes deeply in bringing your head, heart, and hands together to make a difference in the lives of others. An addiction and emergency room doctor at Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH), Dr. Shah has done just that through roles that have helped to shape national healthcare policy and increase access to care.
Dr. Shah will deliver the address at the 146th commencement of Centenary University at two ceremonies on Saturday, May 8, University President Bruce Murphy, Ed.D., announced today. The University will present Dr. Shah with a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, to recognize his extraordinary contributions to public health.
Last year, Dr. Shah helped diagnose the earliest confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey. As the pandemic began to surge, he put in long hours in the emergency room, while also assisting nonprofits in the area to adapt their operations to rapidly changing guidance on the pandemic. “So much was unknown at that time,” Dr. Shah recalled. “I did not know then exactly what course the pandemic would take, but it was clear that a commitment to science and compassion for the person across from you constituted the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. With that in mind, we did strive to keep up with rapidly changing guidance and evidence.”
As the spring waned, Dr. Shah was tapped to contribute his knowledge on healthcare accessibility, as well as the pandemic, to support a member of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, which coalesced platforms from the two presidential candidates into a cohesive approach that is now guiding the healthcare policy of the Biden administration. “The pandemic brought the many ways in which our healthcare system must do better into sharp relief,” Dr. Shah explained. “Those discussions focused on exactly that—how to build back better—for those who need it most. It is heartening to see the way in which those insights are already being translated into real, tangible change for our friends, families, and neighbors across the country.”
A member of the transition team for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Dr. Shah was also honored at the White House during the Obama administration with Be Jersey Strong, a grassroots effort he founded to increase accessibility to coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Serving as the nonprofit’s Executive Director, Dr. Shah helped to recruit and train a diverse group of over 500 undergraduate students to introduce the ACA within their home communities. The effort reached tens of thousands of people and led to significant ACA enrollment increases in New Jersey.
“Be Jersey Strong came about through conversations I had with uninsured patients in the emergency room,” Dr. Shah said. “Often, through no fault of their own, they had been unable to enroll for coverage. One of the things that I soon came to appreciate was that what they needed was not a new app or marketing campaign, but just good, old fashioned conversations with someone akin to knowledgeable neighbors who could help them enroll. Students across this state stepped up to be those knowledgeable neighbors. It was movement work. Thanks to those students, we moved and moved fast, reaching thousands across the state who would have otherwise been overlooked and almost certainly been without access to care to this day.”
Reflecting on the pandemic and other challenges that face the nation, Dr. Shah said that young people, like the students at Centenary University, have the power to effect positive change. “I think a lot of folks this year, more so than in recent prior years, have found themselves at times feeling hopeless because of the size and scope of the many challenges confronting us,” Dr. Shah noted. “The student volunteers at Be Jersey Strong found a way to make the world measurably better, and I think the ripple effect of those actions was significant. Today’s students—and indeed, every one of us—can also find ways, big or small, to make an impact, whatever your calling happens to be.”
Dr. Shah currently serves as the Director of Addiction Medicine and the Medical Director of Project HEAL, a hospital-based violence intervention program, at Jersey Shore University Medical Center (JSUMC) and is the Medical Director of New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), where he provides guidance on initiatives to better meet the healthcare needs of the justice-involved population. He earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, completed his MBA and MSc in comparative social policy from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and received a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science from Ursinus College.