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

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

The remarks came after Virtua executives learned that freeholders were to host a forum Tuesday morning with mayors from around the county whose agenda would include improvements to advanced life support services. Virtua, which provides such services 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 Camden after Gov. Christie signed a law allowing it to do so, will attend Tuesday's meeting and discuss the "success" of the system in Camden, according to the letter.

Kotzen said Monday that leaving Virtua out of the meeting was disrespectful, insulting, and a clear sign that Cooper, led by the politically powerful George E. Norcross III, intended to make a play to replace Virtua as the county's advanced life support 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 of a new 911 dispatch system as well as improvements to the county Emergency Operations Center. He said Cooper had told the county it had no interest in broadening its advanced life support services outside Camden.

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

Keashen said Virtua executives "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 called the accusations against freeholders "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 said 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, saying that its EMS service had won numerous awards and commendations over its four decades serving Camden and Burlington Counties and that the hospital had 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.