Lawmakers approve new Bergen Regional oversight plan reflecting changes sought by Christie

Mary Jo Layton, The Record

An 11-member hospital authority would have sweeping powers over the management of Bergen Regional Medical Center if Gov. Christie as expected signs a bill lawmakers approved Thursday reflecting changes he sought in a conditional veto earlier this month.

The agency — comprising the Bergen Executive, county residents with expertise in finance and non-profit management, and appointees of the governor — would supervise administrators, finances and operations at the state’s largest hospital, under the terms of the revised measure.

“The important benefits of creating this hospital authority have been preserved even with the governor’s conditional veto,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat who’s a primary sponsor of the bill.

“Most important, it provides for an 11-member board with appropriate oversight and a sole responsibility to make sure the facility does well while protecting the public interest,” she added.

The Republican governor removed language from the original bill that created mandates on prevailing wages and project labor agreements for work or services provided at the hospital, strategies that the GOP has long maintained drive up the cost of business. However, the governor said “a single-purpose authority is likely necessary to oversee the state’s largest, publicly owned hospital.’’

A 19-year contract between the Bergen County Improvement Authority and Bergen Regional Medical Center LP, the current for-profit manager of the publicly owned hospital, is scheduled to expire in March. County officials are seeking proposals from companies to run the hospital and so far a dozen, including the current managers, have expressed interest.

The bill, which was approved overwhelmingly in both houses Thursday, was proposed following a report in The Record earlier this year detailing hundreds of alleged assaults in units throughout the hospital in recent years. A 6-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted, 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 and interviews with families. The Paramus facility also came under increased scrutiny after a rare federal investigation into assaults on staff resulted in a fine.

The governor has up to 10 days to sign the measure.

The 1000-bed facility — with $200 million in annual revenues coming mostly from taxpayers — offers a range of services: More than half its beds provide long-term care for the elderly, while it also treats addicts and patients who require psychiatric services. Many patients are poor or have no insurance.

Last week, a consultant hired by the hospital to review its program for preventing violence said staffers were over-reporting alleged episodes to police and that the hospital complied with state law. But the study came under fire from one of the lead union representatives for Bergen Regional employees because union officials were never permitted to meet with the consultant and share their own records of three years worth of documented assaults and other dangerous workplace conditions.

Bergen County Executive James Tedesco ordered the hospital to hire the consultant, part of a package of sweeping reforms, following the reports in The Record.
On Thursday, he signaled his support for the revised measure.

“This legislation will provide Bergen County with appropriate oversight authority for Bergen Regional Medical Center,” Tedesco said. “In establishing the hospital authority, our partners in Trenton have provided the best option for Bergen County and our residents to ensure that Bergen Regional Medical Center is a safe, modern facility providing high quality care for those in need.”

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, who sponsored a version of the bill in the lower house, said it “does not achieve every objective we would have liked.’’ But lawmakers “are willing to sacrifice a few provisions to create an entity with oversight of management to ensure that patients receive the care they need.’’

Hospital spokeswoman Donnalee Corrieri said: “We are extremely pleased to hear that the Legislature approved Gov. Christie’s [conditional veto] CV for the hospital bill.’’

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