Hospital chains sue state over NJ's new paramedic law

Two New Jersey hospital chains have instituted legal proceedings against the state of New Jersey for a law that could result in a major change in paramedic service in Camden.

According to Virtua, the operator of paramedic services in Camden and Burlington counties, a law signed this month by governor Chris Christie violated the state constitution as ''special legislation'' aimed at benefiting just one community.

Under the law, hospitals with Level 1 trauma centres have the right to run ambulance and paramedic services in their host communities.

If the law were to come into effect, it would transfer Virtua's paramedic service in Camden to Cooper University Hospital, where the board chairman was George Norcross, a Democratic Party powerbroker. The state budget also included a $5-million allocation to implement the law, something which the lawsuit said was an ''irrational move.''

Cooper officials say they wanted to take over the ambulance and paramedic services in the city, which was among the nation's most impoverished places, as part of an effort to better coordinate health care in the city.

According to Virtua, the switch would neither improve care nor save money and the legislation relieved three hospitals from the state's regular process of awarding paramedic contracts.

The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in Mercer County by Virtua and another hospital chain, Capital Health System, claimed the state had ''no rational basis'' for making the changes it made.

While according to Cooper and other supporters the law would allow for ''integrated EMS care,'' the lawsuit alleged it would not actually do anything to create better coordination, contain costs or increase service quality. In fact, the complaint said, taking away Virtua's dominance of so-called ''advanced life support'' services in Camden would cut a hole in their network since they now ran such crews in 77 municipalities.

The suit further claimed, for the purposes of paramedic services, there was little difference between top-tier trauma centres - called Level I - and those designated Level II, such as Virtua and Capital.

The companies said only 7 per cent of advanced life support calls across the state were for trauma cases.

''The focus on Level I trauma centers is more a smokescreen than legitimate justification,'' the suit bluntly states.