New Jersey is continuing to underfund its only public acute-care hospital despite being in a better financial position than it has been in years, the state’s largest health care workers union contends in a new position paper.
The Health Professionals and Allied Employees union says University Hospital continues to stagger under “years of state neglect and insufficient funding” and blames the state’s political leaders for not coming to the Newark facility’s aid.
“Due to a lack of adequate support, the facility is antiquated and deteriorating,” the HPAE says in a 12-page document, “Fulfilling the Historic Charge of University Hospital in Newark and Sustaining the Opportunity for Public Health for Future Generations of New Jerseyans. ” “To date, the state has made almost no capital investment in University Hospital.”
The union plans be among several groups in Trenton on Monday lobbying state legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy for more funding for the hospital, HPAE president Debbie White told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday.
“What we need now is for the state to invest in a new building,” White said. “University Hospital’s cash on hand is so much lower than other competing hospitals. The age of their building is twice the age of others. They have power outputs, an antiquated plumbing and electrical system.
“Our doctors and nurses and other staff are working in unsustainable conditions. A patient should not have to be told, ‘We have to move you because we think your room is going to be flooded in a few minutes.’”
Efforts to reach Murphy for comment were unsuccessful.
University, a 519-bed hospital that cares for the largest share of uninsured and underinsured patients in the state, is North Jersey’s sole Level 1 trauma center. It is also a principal teaching hospital of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.
“While University Hospital and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences are separate entities, University Hospital is an important institution to us,” said Zach Hosseini, associate vice chancellor for communications and marketing at Rutgers, in a statement. “Our doctors treat patients there, our trainees learn there, and we share a joint mission to improve the health and wellbeing of the communities that surround it. We support state efforts to fund major capital improvements and have been deeply involved in that planning thus far.”
The 43-year-old building can barely keep up with increasing demands, the HPAE says.
The emergency department, for instance, sees nearly 100,000 patients each year, although it was designed to handle 60,000. Last year, it admitted more than 15,500 patients and had nearly 200,000 outpatient clinic visits, according to University.
White says the $44 million earmarked for the hospital in the proposed state budget “is not sufficient, especially not with the surplus funds that New Jersey has now.”
“In prior years, maybe there hasn’t been much money in the budget to fund University Hospital,” said White, whose union represents about 1,400 University Hospital employees. “But now we have [federal pandemic relief funds]. The state is sitting on a lot of money.”
Former University Hospital CEO Shereef Elnahal had pushed for increased funding and campaigned for the construction of a new hospital, estimating the cost at about $1 billion. The Murphy administration set the wheels in motion for a new building last year by including $500,000 in the state budget for a needs assessment study.
Elhanal also estimated that University Hospital required about $20 million a year in emergency repairs. He told the state and local leaders last year that the facilities are “bursting at the seams,” while juggling growing primary care needs and a burgeoning mental health crisis.
But Elnahal, who had served as the state’s health commissioner before taking the reins of University in 2019, stepped down from his post earlier this year after President Joe Biden nominated him to be under secretary for health at the US Veterans Affairs Department. His departure concerns hospital supporters who are fearful that the momentum for a new building could fade.
HPAE maintains that the governor’s budget should allot about $150 million “just to keep this hospital going in the next year,” White said. The union also calls for the state to provide about $600 million — culled from American Rescue Plan State Fiscal Recovery Funds — of the $1 billion that a new building is expected to cost.
University, tucked between the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Fairmount Cemetery, is built on land taken from minority property owners in exchange for giving the underserved community a medical facility that would provide high-quality care. The agreement was formalized in the 1968 “Newark Accords.” The HPAE position paper argues that by giving short shrift to the hospital, the state’s leaders are reneging on the promise made to the residents of Newark and the surrounding communities.
“The State of New Jersey has a moral and ethical obligation to honor its commitment to University Hospital,” the position paper said. “Giving tens of millions of dollars to private hospital corporations that can fully fund their own improvements is a disservice to the citizens of New Jersey, when University Hospital should be the state’s first priority in health care.”
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