Two New Jersey health systems are suing because they say a new state law unfairly takes away their role as advanced emergency medical service providers in their service areas.
Marlton, N.J.-based Virtua Health and Trenton, N.J.-based Capital Health are suing the state of Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law that gives the state's three hospitals with Level I trauma centers exclusive rights to provide advanced life support, or ALS, services in their respective municipalities and allows them an expedited certificate-of-need review process to provide services in other cities where they have acute-care hospitals.
The move would give Camden-based Cooper University Health Care the exclusive right to provide ALS services in Camden, where Virtua has provided those services for the past 38 years. New Brunswick-based Robert Wood Johnson Health System and Newark-based University Hospital already provide services in their respective home cities, but the law allows Robert Wood Johnson to apply for a CON to provide ALS services in Hamilton, where it has an acute-care hospital, but where Capital currently provides ALS services.
The law also gives the three systems with Level I trauma centers the right of first refusal for basic life support, or BLS, services in the cities in which they operate. That is provided the city doesn't offer BLS services through a municipal service or as part of a shared-services agreement. BLS ambulances, which provide non-invasive, low-level care, respond to all 911 calls; ALS ambulances, also known as mobile intensive-care units, are called in for more serious, life-threatening conditions.
Virtua and Capital say the law circumvents the state health department's traditional role in regulating which hospitals provide ALS services, and violates the New Jersey Constitution's prohibition against “special legislation” that excludes certain entities from legal benefit without any rational basis. Both systems are concerned about the financial viability of their ALS businesses, with Capital Health expressing concern that the law is “carving Hamilton out of the center” of Mercer County, where it holds the CON to provide all ALS services.
The New Jersey attorney general's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. The state has 35 days to respond to the complaint.
The law is good news for George Norcross, a frequent ally of Gov. Christie and chairman of Cooper's board of trustees. The health system declined to comment and Robert Wood Johnson Health System did not return a request for comment.
Philip Lebowitz, a Philadelphia-based attorney with Duane Morris representing Virtua Health and Capital Health, said there's no rationale for linking the ALS services to Level I trauma centers. Even though Virtua operates ALS services in Camden, most of those patients are transported to Cooper University, with some going to Our Lady of Lourdes, another Camden hospital that has stood behind Virtua amid the controversy. Only about 2% of patients are taken to a Virtua facility, he said.
Virtua and Capital could be hit hard financially if they have to significantly restructure their ALS operations, Lebowitz said. But he noted that it would also be a cumbersome challenge for Cooper to build an ALS program from scratch, though the state is subsidizing that process.
“It's a lot for somebody that's never operated an ALS service to get up to speed and be able to provide the same level of quality for Camden that (Virtua has) been providing for 38 years,” Lebowitz said.