Both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would radically alter how paramedics operate in Camden.
If signed into law by Governor Christie, the sole level 1 trauma center in the region, Cooper University Health Care, would gain the exclusive right to run the city’s highest level of emergency medical services, taking the job away from Virtua.
“We think it’s not justified and we don’t understand why the legislators are doing what they’re doing,” said Richard Miller, the president and CEO of Virtua, a nonprofit hospital system. “The program’s already running very well and very high quality.”
Proponents argue that the switch would improve care and cut costs, aligning Camden’s setup with that of other cities in the Garden State. The bill easily passed in both houses after being introduced in the senate less than three weeks ago.
Traditionally, the EMS provider is decided by the Department of Health by issuing a “certificate of need.”
“States give basically a franchise to a specific entity to operate,” said Mark Pauly, a health economist at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Miller said the bill circumvents this normal regulatory process, and will ultimately allow Cooper to steer patients to its hospital in favor of others. The EMS service itself, he added, loses $1.2 million every year.
Pauly noted that with health coverage expanding through the Affordable Care Act, the costs of such programs are likely to drop.
“Relative to the past, they’re at least less of a money loser and may be positively profitable,” he said. “Plus, there’s no doubt there’s a prestige element associated with being in charge of the whole system that spills over into other dimensions of hospital care.”
Virtua has offered advanced life support ambulatory services in Camden for the past 38 years.
The chairman of Cooper’s board of trustees is George Norcross, the South Jersey powerbroker who has strong allies both among Democrats in the legislature and in Gov. Chris Christie.