on July 06, 2015 at 7:29 PM, updated July 07, 2015 at 10:33 AM
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie on Monday signed a bill that wrests control of emergency ambulance services in Camden from one south Jersey hospital chain and gives it its competitor, Cooper Health, overseen by south Jersey power broker George Norcross.
Virtua Health, with hospitals in Voorhees, Marlton and Berlin in suburban Camden County, has provided advanced life support and paramedic services in the city of Camden since 1977. Cooper University Hospital, the level one trauma center located in Camden and serving south Jersey, trains Virtua’s paramedics.
But under legislation that raced through the Assembly and Senate last month in the final days before the summer break, Cooper would take over emergency medical services for the city. State Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden), one of the bill’s sponsors, argued Cooper was best suited to provide these services because their paramedics intend to provide follow-up care after patients — many of whom live in Camden — are discharged.
The budget Christie signed last month for the fiscal year that began July 1 also dedicates $2.5 million to Cooper to buy new ambulances and other equipment.
Norcross is the chairman of the board at Cooper, and is the widely considered the most influential Democrat in the state, with ties to Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. There was no statement from Christie along with the announcement that he’d signed the bill on Monday.
The legislation sparked a public feud between the two hospital systems. Virtua argued the bill was a blatant power grab because it circumvents the state Health Department’s authority to decide who should provide EMS services. Virtua executives also argued they do a commendable job providing the service without needing to take money from the state budget.
Cooper supporters argued that when Virtua closed down its acute-care hospital in the city 15 years ago, it had abandoned the Camden, despite providing outpatient services there. Paramedic response time data released by Camden County the night before the legislature approved the bill on June 22 called into question Virtua’s service record.
According to the bill, (S2980), “A hospital which is designated a Level 1 trauma center shall be exclusively authorized to develop and maintain advanced life support services in the municipality in which the trauma center is located, and shall have the right of first refusal to provide both advanced life support and basic life support in the municipality.” Cooper is not named in the bill, but it is the only level one trauma center in the state does not provide EMS services to its host city’s hospital.
Cooper officials intend to bid on the basic life support ambulance service contract provided by University Hospital, based in Newark with a substation in Camden.
“The governor’s action today, in addition to the overwhelming, bipartisan support of the legislature, will allow advanced life support services in Camden to finally be fully integrated within the region’s only level 1 Trauma Center,” according to a statement released by Cooper spokeswoman Wendy Marano. “Camden residents will now receive the same level of care as others in the state.”
Richard P. Miller, Virtua President & CEO, said he was “extremely disappointed” the governor signed the bill, and hinted he may sue.
“The best practice model for EMS across the nation supports regionalization of EMS services, not creating a new program for one municipality,” Miller said in a statement released late Monday night.
“When every minute counts, Virtua paramedics are the best in the state, having served all municipalities in Camden and Burlington counties with distinction for more than 38 years,” Miller said. “For the City of Camden, Virtua exceeds the State Department of Health’s guidelines for response time, delivering even faster response times than guidelines established by the Department’s Emergency Medical Services Blue Ribbon Panel.”
“We will explore all options, including the possibility of litigation, and will provide additional information as appropriate,” according to Miller’s statement.