A New Jersey judge ruled Tuesday that a law that allowed Cooper University Hospital to take over emergency medical services in Camden from rival Virtua Health was unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Hurd, ruling orally from the bench in Trenton, ordered the Christie administration not to implement the law. Hurd did not issue a written decision.
Richard P. Miller, chief executive of Virtua, praised the ruling and said the hospital looked "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."
Marlton-based Virtua sued the state and Gov. Christie after the Legislature swiftly passed a bill in June - which the governor signed in July - that effectively granted Cooper "exclusive authority" to provide paramedic services in Camden.
The law was controversial in part because one of Christie's key political allies, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, is chair of Cooper's board of trustees. At the time, Miller said the legislative process resembled "communist China."
The law also was designed to let Cooper provide basic life services - ambulance-based medical services, such as CPR, administered by emergency medical technicians - and prohibit other hospitals such as Virtua from submitting a bid to Camden. Such services are currently administered by Newark-based University Hospital, which is state-owned.
Trenton-based Capital Health Inc. joined in Virtua's lawsuit, which alleges that the law provided a special benefit to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
Without specifically naming Robert Wood Johnson, the law granted it an expedited review from the state so that the hospital could take over paramedic services in Hamilton, Mercer County.
Capital holds what is known as a certificate of need to provide paramedic, or advanced life, services in Hamilton. Virtua has held a certificate of need to provide paramedic services in Camden and Burlington Counties since 1977.
The complaint alleges that the law violated a provision of the New Jersey Constitution that "the Legislature shall not pass any private, special, or local laws . . . granting to any corporation, association, or individual any exclusive privilege, immunity, or franchise whatever."
The law is "unconstitutional special legislation" because it grants Cooper and Robert Wood Johnson exclusive privileges not available to other health-care facilities already providing paramedic services, the suit says.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office declined to comment on the judge's decision.
In a statement, Cooper said, "We expect that the New Jersey Appellate Division will quickly review Judge Hurd's decision and support the Legislature's overwhelming vote last June."
The statement added, "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."
Virtua has sharply disputed that assessment of its response times.
In the first half of 2015, Virtua paramedics arrived on the scene of emergencies in Camden within eight minutes of being dispatched in 69 percent of cases, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from the Camden County Public Safety Department.
The paramedics arrived within 10 minutes in 89 percent of cases. Research on cardiac arrests calls for an eight-minute standard. However, experts have cautioned against a universal standard for response times.