Virtua exploring options to fight law that gives Cooper control over Camden paramedic services

Health Care Associated Press

Camden's longtime paramedic services provider is exploring options to fight legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie that will allow Cooper University Hospital to take over emergency medical services in the city.

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The legislation signed by Christie on Monday will give Cooper control over life support services currently provided by a competitor, Marlton-based Virtua Health System.

"We are extremely disappointed that Governor Chris Christie signed the controversial Emergency Medical Services bill," Virtua President and CEO Richard P. Miller said in a statement.

"We will explore all options, including the possibility of litigation, and will provide additional information as appropriate," he said.

Supporters say the law will improve the quality of care to patients in the chronically impoverished city by placing paramedic and ambulance services under one umbrella. Currently, Virtua provides paramedics, while the Newark-based University Hospital provides ambulances in the city.

But some worry the legislation, which was fast-tracked by lawmakers, will disrupt long-standing service. The chairman of Cooper's board is George Norcross, a Democratic powerbroker with deep influence in the Statehouse.

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The legislation gives the state's Level 1 trauma centers exclusive rights "to develop and maintain advanced life support services in the municipality in which the trauma center is located" as well as "the right of first refusal to provide both advanced life support and basic life support services in the municipality."

Two of the state's trauma centers — University Hospital in Newark and Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick — already hold contracts in their cities, meaning the law will only impact Camden.

Cooper University Hospital praised the legislation.

"The governor's action yesterday, 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," a statement said.

Camden Democratic Assemblyman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, the bill's primary supporter, said the change would put Cooper on equal footing with other trauma hospitals in the state, improving care for under-served patients.

"I think what a lot of people are missing here ... (is) the care of the patients," he said, dismissing the idea that the move would benefit Norcross. "He's pretty healthy," he said.

But Senator Joseph Vitale, a Democrat who voted against the bill, said he was concerned about lawmakers unilaterally making changes that should be left to health professionals.

"It is a disruption to the system," he said.