A New Jersey appellate court ruled Tuesday that a law intended to give Cooper University Hospital control of emergency medical services in Camden may go forward pending further litigation.
A two-judge panel granted the state a stay of a lower court's decision last week that blocked implementation of the law, finding it to be unconstitutional "special legislation."
Virtua Health Inc. sued the state and Gov. Christie after he signed the legislation in July that gave Cooper the exclusive authority to provide paramedic services in Camden.
Christie, a Republican, has allied with Cooper's chairman, George E. Norcross III, a Democratic power broker, on a number of initiatives in Camden.
Virtua has had regulatory authority to administer those services in the city and elsewhere in Camden and Burlington Counties since 1977.
The Attorney General's Office petitioned for a stay of the lower court's order. Its lawyers argued that the decision threatened to "fatally disrupt the provision of emergency medical services in Camden."
That's because Camden's current provider of basic life services - ambulance-based services such as CPR - has "dismantled" its operations there in anticipation of Cooper's takeover, the state said.
The provider, Newark-based University Hospital, has sent out termination notices to its 37 employees in Camden, some of whom have retired or sought employment elsewhere, according to the Attorney General's Office.
In court documents, Virtua countered that the state had not demonstrated "by clear and convincing evidence" that services would be disrupted. It also said Camden could employ emergency procedures, such as contracting with Cooper, to avoid such an interruption in services.
Moreover, Virtua said, three providers had sent letters last week to Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd offering to provide basic life services at no cost to taxpayers pending the appeal or until the city selected a new provider.
Virtua CEO Richard P. Miller said Tuesday that his hospital planned to seek reconsideration of the appellate order so that Virtua could continue to provide paramedic services in Camden. "The state's appeal remains pending, and Virtua will seek a prompt resolution," he said in a statement.
A spokesman for the acting attorney general said the office did not comment on pending litigation.
The law Christie enacted was designed to give Cooper the authority to provide both paramedic and basic life services in Camden. Supporters in the Democratic-controlled Legislature said at the time that this would improve care by integrating services.
With Tuesday's ruling, Cooper said it would begin offering basic life and paramedic services Saturday.
"Today's ruling will allow for the full integration of EMS services in Camden with Southern New Jersey's only Level 1 Trauma Center, Cooper University Hospital," Cooper said in a statement.
Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Hurd last week said that distinction was irrelevant with regard to the provision of emergency medical services.
"The only rational conclusion is that the act will decentralize medical oversight, not improve pre-hospital care and not be more cost-efficient," he said while ruling from the bench last week, according to a court transcript.
For example, Hurd said, the law would disrupt Virtua's regional model.
The budget passed by the Legislature in June and signed into law by Christie also included $2.5 million for Cooper to fund its emergency medical services.
Judges Joseph L. Yannotti and Jerome M. St. John granted the state's request for a stay.