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Proposed Hospitals Merger Gets Thumbs-up at Hearing

Proposed Hospitals Merger Gets Thumbs-up at Hearing

By Vince Conti

Cape Regional Medical Center
Cape Regional Medical Center
Source: Google
Cape Regional Medical Center

STONE HARBOR – The proposed merger of Cape Regional Health System and Cooper University Health System encountered no opposition at a public hearing on the plan in Stone Harbor Monday, Feb. 5.

The hearing was part of a state review process that will result in a decision by the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Health as to whether the merger should go forward.

At the hearing the public testimony was over in a little more than 30 minutes, with no one speaking against the merger.

Testimony

A panel of state officials heard the comments but made clear they were not there to respond to questions about the merger or the process.

Middle Township Mayor Christopher Leusner, the first speaker, praised the pending merger, calling Cape Regional “a first-class organization” that has done much to better the lives of residents in Cape May County. He said the merger would “impact the residents of the community in a positive way.” Leusner singled out the plan by Cooper to staff a new cancer center in the county, calling it a “game changer for our residents.”

Barbara Jones, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, followed Leusner, speaking of Cape Regional’s work with the chamber and the benefits the merger would bring to both health care and job opportunities in the county.

Cape Regional President and CEO Joanne Carrocino spoke of the challenging environment in health care across the country and the difficulties facing a small, independent health system as it tries to deal with those challenges.

Carrocino said Cape Regional chose Cooper University Health System as a potential partner because of the long-standing relationship the two organizations already have in place, referencing, among other collaborations, Cooper’s staffing of Cape Regional’s intensive care unit with fellowship-trained intensivist physicians.

She cited Cooper’s standing as a Level I trauma center and its position as the leading academic health center in South Jersey. She also referenced the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper and the improvements that the merger will bring for cancer care in the county.

Carrocino said Cooper was committed to growth in this area and would help bring new physicians to the county. Last year Cape Regional terminated its maternity services when physician retirements meant the medical center no longer had access to the doctors it needed to maintain the service.

The co-CEOs from Cooper, Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli and Kevin O’Dowd, both testified at the hearing.

Mazzarelli spoke of Cooper’s recognition for quality care and its standing as an academic health system in South Jersey. He welcomed Cape Regional personnel to “our team” and spoke of a goal to provide “advanced, compassionate and quality care” to Cape May County residents.

O’Dowd said one aim of the merger was to enlarge and elevate health services in Cape May County. He referenced the services Cooper is already providing at Cape Regional, and said Cooper recently had its credit rating raised, a development that should benefit the merged entity.

Speaking of the challenges that face a small health system, O’Dowd said Cooper will bring “expertise and financial support.”

Only two members of the public spoke at the hearing.

Karen Watson, a retired registered nurse, wanted to know more about how the merger will take place. One of her concerns was whether it would result in the return of maternity care to the county.

No one from either health system spoke directly to the question of maternity care. While there were many general statements about how the merger would improve health services in Cape May, specifics on maternity services were not provided.

The other member of the public, Dr. Andrew Drake, said that as a practicing physician he has had affiliations with both Cape Regional and Cooper. He supports the merger and sees positive benefits for the county.

Although the panel kept the hearing open for a further 30 minutes, no one else chose to speak and the hearing formally ended one hour after it began.

The Process

The four-person panel was composed of Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Peitz, Assistant Attorney General Rachel Doobrajh, Assistant Commissioner Stefanie Mozgai of the Department of Health and Michael Kennedy, executive director, division of certification of need, of the Department of Health.

The two state agencies play complementary roles in the merger-approval process.

The Community Health Asset Protection Act requires the Attorney General’s Office to determine if the merger is “in the public interest.” The commissioner of health must determine if the merger “is likely to result in the deterioration of the quality, availability or accessibility of health-care services in the affected communities.”

An important aspect of a proceeding under the act is the requirement that the Attorney General’s Office hold at least one public hearing where any person may file written comments.

The hearing record will be kept open until Feb. 12, allowing time for members of the public to submit written comments and exhibits. Details on how to submit written comments are on the Cape Regional Health System website, https://bit.ly/42t9tog.

The Combined Entity

Camden-based Cooper University Health System has approximately $2 billion in annual revenue. Cape Regional has earned the Gold Seal of Approval from the Joint Commission as an integrated health-care delivery system serving the residents of Cape May County. It has about $200 million in annual revenue.

The two hospitals together will have over 900 beds and more than 10,000 staff. The merged entity would have more than 900 physicians in three practice groups and six urgent care centers.

There was no discussion of a schedule for the state decision on the merger. The hope last year at the signing of the agreement in March was for a decision sometime in the first quarter of 2024.

Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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