Christie signs bill to boost oversight of Bergen Regional Medical Center

Mary Jo Layton, The Record

Gov. Christie signed into law Wednesday a measure to create a hospital authority with sweeping powers over the management of Bergen Regional Medical Center, which has come under increased scrutiny amid allegations of violence at the facility.

An 11-member panel -- comprising the Bergen County executive, two people with expertise in finance and non-profit management and appointees of the governor – will supervise administrators, finances and operations of the largest hospital in the state.

Bergen County lawmakers proposed the measure following a report in The Record in May detailing hundreds of alleged assaults in units throughout the hospital. A 6-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by another patient, according to a police report and a lawsuit; fights broke out in detox units and locked-down wards and senior citizens were allegedly attacked in the long-term care unit, according to police reports.

The facility also came under increased scrutiny after a federal investigation resulted in a fine after eight workers were assaulted, four of whom needed medical treatment. The hospital, which provides psychiatric and addiction services, acute care and long-term care, is contesting the findings and maintains that the rate of incidents has decreased.

“I am pleased that we have been able to give the county the major tool it needs to guarantee public oversight over the next years as Bergen Regional fulfills a promise to all our residents to fulfill health care needs and to provide excellent care,’’ said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, a primary sponsor of the bill.

Weinberg has long called for more transparency not only in the operations at the medical center, but at all for-profit hospitals in New Jersey. Her efforts may have stalled in Trenton, but this bill permits the authority to have “independent access to the books and records of the hospital at all times,’’ the legislation notes.

For years, officials have tried to learn how much the hospital earns in profits and what its two affiliated entities — a management company and IT firm — net each year from the hospital. Bergen Regional’s annual revenues total about $200 million, most of which is paid by county, state and federal taxpayers.

Instead of the Bergen County Improvement Authority overseeing the hospital, the new agency will take the helm at a pivotal time: a 19-year contract between the authority and Bergen Regional Medical Center LP, the current for-profit manager, is scheduled to expire next year.

At times, it appeared as if the BCIA didn’t always know what was going on at the facility. Officials at the agency said they learned of the citation from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from a press release the agency provided.

Bergen County officials are in the process of soliciting proposals from companies to run the 1070-bed hospital.  A dozen or so entities have expressed interest, including the principals in the current management company.

“We look forward to the creation of this new authority, which will enable the county to mandate appropriate oversight over Bergen Regional,’’ Tedesco said. “It is important that Bergen County maintains a public social safety net for those who need medical help but cannot afford it.’’

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood and a sponsor of the legislation, said the measure achieves lawmakers’ goals of more transparency and accountability.

“It will provide the proper oversight and safeguards so that at the end of the day staff can provide the level of services that will ensure patient care and safety,” Huttle said.

An independent consultant hired by the hospital at the request of Tedesco announced earlier this month that staff over reported alleged episodes and that the hospital complied with state law. The state Department of Health has also approved the hospital’s workplace violence prevention program.

The hospital has maintained that instances of violence are decreasing, but it has not provided the number of episodes reported. Earlier this year, it changed its reporting policies to be more in line with how other facilities report episodes.