December 22, 2015

Court: Law that gave Cooper rights to Camden emergency services is unconstitutional

Mercer County Superior Court rules law is special legislation

Health Emergency Services
Cooper University Hospital Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey.

The Mercer County Superior Court ruled Tuesday that legislation giving Cooper University Hospital exclusive rights to provide Camden's emergency services is unconstitutional.

Judge Douglas Hurd ruled the law is special legislation, a designation prohibited by the state constitution.

The legislature approved the law in June, awarding Level 1 trauma centers exclusive rights to develop and maintain life support services in their respective municipalities. That gave Cooper the keys to Camden's advanced life support (ALS) services, removing Virtua Health System, a competitor that had provided the services for decades.

Though there are three Level 1 trauma centers in New Jersey, the bill primarily affected ALS services in Camden. The two other trauma centers – UMDNJ University Hospital in Newark and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick – already provide ALS services in their respective municipalities.

Virtua and Capital Health filed a joint lawsuit in July alleging the law was unconstitutional. Capital Health stood to lose ALS services in Hamilton Township because a separate provision gave Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital the option to assume those services.

“We are pleased that the court agreed with us that the controversial New Jersey act changing how emergency medical services (EMS) were to be provided under the act was unconstitutional special legislation," Virtua President Richard Miller said in a statement. "Now we look forward to continuing our focus on what is most critical to South Jersey residents, which is our ongoing provision of experienced, award-winning, and high quality EMS services for the people in the City of Camden, and the 76 other municipalities we serve in Camden and Burlington Counties.”

The ruling is expected to be appealed to the New Jersey Appellate Division.

Cooper University Hospital released a statement saying the law brings Camden in line with the way emergency services are provided in other New Jersey cities with Level 1 trauma centers.

"Independent studies and media reports have found that current emergency response times in Camden fall short of the recommended standards, and we continue to believe that Camden’s residents deserve nothing less than the same level of high quality care available in other communities," the statement said.

Prior to being signed by Gov. Chris Christie, the law passed the Senate by a 27-12 vote and the Assembly by a 58-16 vote with three abstentions.

PhillyVoice Managing Director Lexie Norcross sits on the Cooper Foundation Board of Trustees. Her father, George E. Norcross III is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Cooper Health System.