BY DUSTIN RACIOPPI Bergen Record
Democratic lawmakers — including key North Jersey legislators — want a new law that gives a Camden hospital with deep ties to one of their party’s most powerful leaders control over paramedic services and $2.5 million in state funds to do it.
The bill, whose primary sponsors include Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, would give Cooper University Health Care exclusive authority to provide paramedic services in Camden, a proposal that has infuriated the organization that has had that role for nearly 40 years.
Cooper’s board of trustees is chaired by George Norcross, a powerful Democrat with ties to not only fundraisers but also Governor Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, neither of whom commented Wednesday.
Introduced two weeks ago, the bill is scheduled for final votes today — an example, critics say, of how quickly legislation can move in Trenton when the right people are involved.
Huttle called it a “good piece of legislation.”
“This is about providing the best care to our most vulnerable residents in South Jersey,” Huttle said.
Cooper is one of three hospitals in the state with a Level I trauma center. The other two, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and University Hospital in Newark, provide paramedic services in their respective cities. The bill would grant “exclusive authority to provide advanced life support services” – otherwise known as paramedic services – “in the municipality in which the trauma center is located.”
Huttle stressed that the legislation would have no effect in Bergen County, where Hackensack University Medical Center has a Level II trauma center. St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson also has a Level II trauma center.
If the legislation is signed into law, it would push Virtua, the medical group that has provided paramedic services in Camden since 1977, out of the city.
Camden represents 16 percent of the group’s customer base in Burlington and Camden counties, although at a cost of $1.2 million annually it is a money-losing endeavor, health care executives said Wednesday at a news conference against the legislation. Still, losing a portion of the customer base could lead to reevaluation of staffing levels, said Virtua’s chief executive, Richard Miller.
More than anything, though, Miller expressed the most frustration at what he sees as a fair legislative process cast aside for personal interest. As he drove north to the State House on Wednesday, Miller said, “I thought I landed in communist China.”
“One person wants something and can take it away from another business just unilaterally and get people to agree with it. What in heaven’s name is happening to our process?” Miller said. Although he did not mention Norcross by name, Miller, when pressed, added: “I think people know who I’m talking about. The chairman of Cooper obviously feels strongly about taking this program away from Virtua.”
A spokesman for Norcross, Daniel Fee, said that is not quite the case.
“He’s focused on Virtua profits and everyone else is focused on the quality of care that Camden residents receive,” Fee said. “Camden residents deserve the highest quality continual care that every other community gets.”
If the bill becomes law, services for Camden will cost all taxpayers. The Democrats’ budget for the upcoming year includes a total of $5 million for paramedic services — $2.5 million for Cooper and another $2.5 million for Newark, where University Hospital is located.
Although Christie, a Republican, is expected to line-item veto tax increases and a full public employee pension payment included in the Democratic spending plan, he could include the $5 million appropriation in the budget he must sign by July 1.
Miller said residents pay enough in property taxes and shouldn’t have to foot the bill for Cooper to run a service that is already provided.
“Are the legislators voting yes to these bills living on another planet?” Miller said.
Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and a Democrat from Wood-Ridge, would not get into the feud in South Jersey.
“There was a request made for this new, more efficient way of responding to the needs of Camden residents,” he said. “It was approved by our leadership.”
Alex Hatala, chief executive of the Lourdes Health System in Camden, is one of the many who appeared in Trenton on Wednesday to oppose the bill. He said there is “no record” within the Department of Health to show that there is a problem with how the paramedic service has been run by Virtua.
“The system is not broken,” Hatala said.
Department spokeswoman Dawn Thomas declined to comment on the legislation and, in response to questions of complaints and violations of paramedic services in Camden, instructed The Record to file an open records request.