Gov. Christie joined Democratic power broker George Norcross in Camden on Tuesday to tout improved emergency response times in the city last year, after Christie signed a law that allowed Cooper University Health Care to begin providing paramedic and ambulance services.
While the action spurred a legal battle with Marlton-based Virtua Health System, Christie said it was a "fight" that was "worth having."
The Republican governor also endorsed a call by Norcross – who is chairman of the board of trustees at Cooper – to require greater "accountability" from other emergency services providers.
"I hope that the Legislature finds some time to do that … so people in all parts of the state can enjoy the same type of service that the folks in this room are providing," Christie said at a Cooper ambulance bay in Camden.
Cooper officials said Tuesday that they had responded to 90 percent of advanced life support calls within eight minutes in 2016, up from 70 percent of calls responded to within eight minutes under Virtua in 2015.
As he promoted the results, Christie said that "all too often right now in politics, we have people disputing facts that seem obvious on their face for political reasons. It's unacceptable."
The governor – who didn't take media questions Tuesday, as he hasn't for months – said that after "all the whispers" about the reasons for the change, "we're here to put the facts in front of you. … Those people who oppose this, now they have to answer for these facts."
A Virtua spokeswoman said Tuesday that "as stated previously, Virtua disagrees with the legislative process that changed the EMS system in Camden."
"However, Virtua continues to provide high-quality EMS services in Burlington and Camden Counties and remains committed to all the communities we serve," spokeswoman Peggy Leone said.
Virtua sued over the law, which led Cooper to begin providing paramedic and ambulance services in Camden last January. The law authorized Cooper to provide the services because of its status as a Level 1 trauma center within the city limits.
While a lower court agreed with Virtua that the law was unconstitutional, an appellate panel upheld the law in August, writing that "it is conceivable that a Level 1 trauma care center, with its greater resources, university affiliation, and clinical advantages, could provide these services in a more capable and cost-efficient manner."
Cooper did not provide a detailed list of calls and response times Tuesday. But it said it had added resources and was using them more efficiently.
"When we evaluated the numbers, we looked at what we felt it would take to adequately cover the needs of the city," said Rick Rohrbach, EMS director of Air and Ground Services at Cooper. He said Cooper has two advanced life support units in Camden, compared with one previously. The units are also spread out geographically, Rohrbach said.
With more resources, Cooper reduced the need for mutual aid in Camden, Rohrbach said. Dispatches into the city for basic life services decreased 63 percent in 2016, officials said.
Cooper officials also said they had responded to more calls in 2016 compared with 2015 and provided more advanced life support transports – showing that response times improved even with higher volume, they said. Rohrbach said the call volume was not due to more violence.
As he promoted the response times in Camden, Norcross referred to "extraordinarily poor" times in suburban Camden County "and certain communities."
Camden's response times "are better than Cherry Hill, better than Pennsauken," Norcross said.
He said it was "about time that the state and county step in and demand accountability" for EMS response times.
A Cooper spokesman later said Norcross was referring to advanced life support services.
In Pennsauken, which has a benchmark of no more than eight minutes from time of dispatch to time on location, "we meet that on a regular basis," said Mike Coyle, chief of EMS. The agency's average response time for all calls last year was 6.5 minutes, Coyle said.
"Sure, we'd like to improve," Coyle said, in response to Norcross' comments. But "we're satisfied where we are."
Cherry Hill Fire Chief Thomas Kolbe said his department "responds in a timely manner to all emergency calls, within four to six minutes of being dispatched, within national standards."
Both Cherry Hill and Pennsauken are served by Virtua. Asked whether Cooper wanted to provide service elsewhere in Camden County, Cooper president and CEO Adrienne Kirby said: "The only thing that we're saying is the response times in the suburbs are not meeting the benchmarks either. That is what Mr. Norcross is referring to. He's asking for the numbers to be met."
The National Fire Protection Association recommends that advanced life support services arrive at an incident within eight minutes of dispatch, according to Cooper.
While some EMS departments have a goal of getting paramedics on the scene within eight or nine minutes in at least 90 percent of cases, emergency medicine experts say there isn't one standard.
In addition to crediting Christie with supporting Camden, Norcross praised the governor's focus on drug addiction in his recent State of the State speech, predicting that it would be his "greatest legacy" – not "the things that people speculate about, or talk about regularly in the media."
Addiction is "the number-one challenge in the entire state of New Jersey," surpassing public education and public safety, Norcross said.
Christie referred to draft legislation he delivered to lawmakers Monday that the governor's office said would allow immediate treatment for diagnosed drug addictions without prior authorization by insurance carriers.
While staff believe "this will be the most aggressive law in the country in terms of providing access to care," it won't work unless providers like Cooper will accept patients, Christie said.