Next step in Rutgers’ partnership with one of state’s largest hospital systems

The alliance is meant to boost status of Rutgers’ medical schools, attract more research dollars
Behind the partnership are Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of RWJBarnabas, left, and Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Rutgers University and RWJBarnabas Health have formalized another major step in their growing alliance aimed at creating a system of top-tier medical education, biomedical research and patient care for the state of New Jersey.

Leaders at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences — which includes the university’s two medical schools, other health-related colleges and various specialty programs — and RWJBarnabas Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, announced Thursday they had signed an “integrated practice agreement” that puts RWJBarnabas in charge of clinical care at hundreds of central Jersey health care practices associated with Rutgers.

While the signing may have little immediate impact on patients and members of the public, it is the latest piece of a multiyear process that Rutgers and RWJBarnabas launched to attract leading researchers, retain more medical graduates and promote best-practice clinical care. RWJBarnabas invested $100 million upfront and pledged another $50 million a year toward the alliance, which extends through 2038, with an option for another 10 years.

Research funding has ‘skyrocketed’

“We can already visibly, quantitatively see the positive impact on the state,” Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences chancellor Brian Strom said Friday, noting research funding has “skyrocketed” and admission to Rutgers two medical schools has more than doubled in recent years.

The push to boost the status of Rutgers’ medical schools and attract more research dollars, particularly from federal sources, has been a priority for years and led to the dismantling of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey nearly a decade ago, and its reorganization under Rutgers and Rowan University, in Camden County, which runs the School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Strom, who was recruited to elevate the health programs reorganized under the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences umbrella, has long sought to create an integrated academic and medical health system like those that exist at Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut, or Penn Medicine, in Philadelphia. “The dream of what was wanted is happening,” he said Friday.

RWJBarnabas president and CEO Barry Ostrowsky said their combined efforts are also benefiting the health and wellness of patients. “I could not be more proud of what we, together with Rutgers, have already achieved and am confident that the future will hold innovative approaches to maintaining good health,” he said in a prepared statement Thursday.

The clinical agreement relates to health care services provided by staff and residents at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in New Brunswick, and practices run by Rutgers Health, officials said. RWJBarnabas already oversees patient care and operations at the school’s teaching hospital, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, as a result of a 2016 merger between what was then Robert Wood Johnson Health System and Barnabas Health.

What the deal does not cover

But the deal does not cover care provided by clinicians at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMC), in Newark — a  lucrative practice — or at adjacent University Hospital (UH), staffed largely by NJMC professionals. The Rutgers-RWJBarnabas affiliation, first outlined in 2017 and codified a year later, has raised concerns for several labor unions as well as community leaders and elected officials from Newark, who worried it would diminish treatment options for city residents who depend on University Hospital and NJMS for regular care.

Strom said discussions about the role of NJMS and University Hospital continue, but it’s long been clear that the agreement involving New Brunswick practices would come first. Rutgers and RWJBarnabas are also working on a clinical agreement to cover the work of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, with sites in both Newark and New Brunswick.

“We absolutely want to protect UH, and UH has to be part of that consideration and planning going forward,” said Strom, who is also advocating for the two Rutgers medical schools to combine under one banner. As it is, University Hospital is just three miles from Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, operated by RWJBarnabas, and the two are competitors.

While the affiliates had hoped to complete the agreement sooner — it was signed in late December but is retroactive to July 1, 2020 — Strom said the process was slowed by the pandemic and the complexity of the deal, which involves multiple locations and professional groups. “It was very complicated to work it out even for the New Brunswick practices. It gets more complicated for the Newark piece,” he said.

A Rutgers faculty union has raised concerns

Under the clinical agreement, all current Rutgers clinicians will remain university employees and continue to lead recruitment efforts, officials said. A Rutgers faculty union has raised concerns about how the arrangement could shift employees from the state university to the private RWJBarnabas health care system, something Strom insisted would not happen.

In the three years since the affiliation was formally created, the two organizations said they have worked together to recruit nearly three-dozen of the “world’s foremost researchers” in disciplines like oncology and neurosurgery and more than 250 clinical faculty at the two medical schools, as well as experts in other science fields. The team established a $10 million fund to help top new doctors pay off their medical school debt in return for setting up practice in New Jersey.

In addition, the two organizations have joined forces to construct a $750 million cancer pavilion for the Cancer Institute in New Brunswick. They also worked together “seamlessly” to treat patients during the pandemic, Strom said last year, and collaborated to support COVID-19 vaccine trials by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.