In fight over EMS, Virtua Hospital blasts Camden County’s ‘political machine’

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Virtua Hospital executives on Monday accused Camden County freeholders of fear-mongering, saying the board is attacking Virtua’s emergency response times so as to clear the way for rival Cooper University Hospital to take over as the county’s provider.

The remarks came after Virtua executives learned that freeholders are hosting a forum Tuesday morning with mayors from around the county to discuss, in part, improvements to Advanced Life Support. Virtua, which provides ALS to municipalities throughout Camden County, was not invited to the meeting, which was described in a letter to mayors as an opportunity to address concerns about response times that are “woefully inadequate” in some areas.

“This is a life-or-death issue that deserves our immediate attention,” the letter states. “The Board of Freeholders would like to assist municipalities in finding the best possible service for residents.”

Mike Kotzen, Virtua’s executive vice president for population health management, defended Virtua’s emergency services Monday and said freeholders were feeding misinformation to the county’s elected officials.

“There is no crisis,” he said.

Representatives from Cooper, which last year took control of paramedic and ambulance services in the City of Camden after Gov. Christie signed a law allowing it, will attend Tuesday’s meeting and discuss the “success” of the system in Camden, the letter states.

Kotzen said Monday that leaving Virtua out of the meeting was disrespectful, insulting, and a clear sign that Cooper, which is led by the politically powerful George E. Norcross III, intended to make a play to replace Virtua as the county’s ALS provider.

“The Camden County freeholders are trying to cut us out,” he said at a news conference at Virtua’s Voorhees headquarters. “The real motivation is not patient care. It’s political.”

Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said the forum had been in the works for months and would include discussion on a new 911 dispatch system as well as improvements to the county Emergency Operations Center. He said Cooper has told the county it has no interest in broadening its ALS services outside of Camden.

Asked why Virtua was not included in the forum, Keashen said county leaders wanted mayors to speak frankly about their concerns regarding response times.

Virtua executives, Keashen said, “must be having hallucinations and are obviously trying to distract from the service Virtua is providing. The facts and data are clear in regard to response times. Simply put, time matters and residents expect and deserve more from their ALS provider.”

Keashen described the accusations regarding the board of freeholders as “a delusional tirade” and added, “we are open to hearing about how (Virtua) is improving its service on behalf of Camden County residents.”

Virtua Health System sued over the law that allowed Cooper to take over Camden’s emergency services, arguing that it was unconstitutional, but an appellate court upheld it.

In January Norcross announced that the hospital had greatly improved response times in the city. He said residents should demand more accountability from their emergency service providers, citing “extraordinarily poor” response times in some communities.

Virtua has disputed that claim, stating that their EMS service has won numerous awards and commendations over its four decades serving Camden and Burlington Counties and that the hospital has made recent investments in technology to improve care.

“We cannot allow the political machine to dictate our path to serving patients and the community,” Kotzen said.

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