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State's Top Court Declines to Reverse Appellate Judges in Cooper-Virtua EMS Case

Order leaves Cooper in charge of paramedics, but Virtua still hopes to win appeal

ambulance (camden)

Cooper University Health will maintain its 11-day-old hold on paramedic services in Camden, since the New Jersey State Supreme Court declined to hand the service back to Cooper’s archrival Virtua until a legal appeal is resolved.

Virtua executives had hoped the state’s high court would block a ruling by two Appellate Division judges, which put in abeyance a lower-court ruling in favor of Virtua until the appeal is heard.

Before Cooper began operating paramedic or advanced life support (ALS) services in Camden on January 2, Virtua had operated it for 38 years. But Cooper won control thanks to a law that was quickly enacted last summer. The law, S-2980/A-4526 , allows Level 1 trauma centers -- hospitals with the most comprehensive trauma services -- to operate ALS services in their home municipalities, and to have “first refusal” over operating local ambulances or basic life support (BLS) services. Cooper is Camden’s only Level 1 trauma center.

Virtua and Capital Health System sued the state over the law, alleging that it was illegally crafted for the benefit of Cooper and Robert Wood Johnson Health System. Mercer County Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Hurd took the plaintiffs’ side in a December 22 ruling that found the law was unconstitutional because it “affords privileges to some but not to others” without a rational basis.

Virtua leaders and other opponents of the law alleged that Cooper, led by powerful chairman George Norcross, bypassed the state’s long-established Certificate of Need system for determining which hospitals provide ALS.

Supporters of the law say it will lead to better coordination of patient care in Camden.

The state government appealed Hurd’s decision, and two appellate court judges issued an order on December 29 putting the ruling on hold until a full appeal is considered.

Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin declined to reverse that hold -- known as a “stay” -- on December 31, allowing Cooper to take over Camden ALS.

But Albin allowed Virtua to make its case to the entire court, setting the stage for the terse, one-sentence order that the court issued yesterday.

“It is ordered that the motion to vacate or modify the Appellate Division’s stay pending appeal is denied,” was the entirety of the order, witnessed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Virtua and Capital Health executives took solace that they would be able to fight another day.

Richard P. Miller, president and CEO of the three-hospital system, said in an emailed statement that they were disappointed.

“Although the decision will allow a controversial law to remain in effect pending the state’s appeal, Virtua paramedics are proud to continue to provide experienced, award-winning and high-quality EMS services for the people in the 76 municipalities we currently serve in Camden and Burlington Counties.”

Miller said Virtua and Capital Health “look forward to making our case during the appeal process, to uphold Judge Hurd’s ruling. Virtua paramedics will also be ready to resume providing Advanced Life Support services for the City of Camden should we be granted the opportunity.”

Capital Health became involved due to a separate provision of the law that allowed hospitals that are in the same system as a Tier 1 trauma center to file an expedited review for a Certificate of Need that would enable them to take over paramedic services in their home municipalities. This provision only affects Hamilton in Mercer County, where Capital Health has provided ALS services for decades, but where Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton could file for an expedited review.

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