University Hospital, a lifeline during COVID, asks for help to protect its future - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

University Hospital, a lifeline during COVID, asks for help to protect its future

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By Susan K Livio

May 1, 2022

Many hospital emergency rooms are crowded on the weekends. But at University Hospital in Newark, Mondays can also get so overwhelming at the state’s only public hospital, that the ER staff calls it: “Medical Mondays.”

“You will see (the patients) piled up on each other. We have the patients banging on the window,” Banita Herndon, a veteran emergency department nurse at University Hospital. “You start to know them by name. They know me by name.”

During each COVID-19 surge, the emergency department was so crowded, “we had them catty-corner and almost on top of each other,” Herndon said.

“In the ED, we are resilient,” she said. “We took it like soldiers.”

But University Hospital, the 43-year-old building itself, lost its resilience long ago. Members of the largest nurses’ union in the state, Health Professionals and Allied Employees, say the emergency department wouldn’t be so overcrowded if there was room to meaningful expand. The department, designed to handle 60,000 patients, sees more than 90,000 annually.

Plumbing problems occasionally shut down the labor and delivery unit and some operating rooms. Offices housed in trailers dot the crowded campus that were supposed to be only temporary offices years ago. The facility needs about $20 million in “emergency” repairs every year for the foreseeable future, hospital CEO, Shereef Elnahal, estimated in a 15-page analysis of his vision for the hospital.

Elnahal launched a campaign to replace the crumbling institution with a larger, more modern facility. An architectural firm, Gensler, is now developing the plans, paid for by a $500,000 grant in the state budget this year. It will take an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion and massive dose of political will to bring the project to life.

However, some are concerned about the how the effort will move forward since the Biden administration in March nominated Elnahal to be under secretary for health at the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. Pending Elnahal’s confirmation hearing, the project’s biggest cheerleader, is leaving the field — just as the state is unusually flush with $4 billion in pandemic relief funds.

With the Murphy Administration and the Legislature deciding how to spend the relief aid, supporters like HPAE and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo are lobbying hard for at least $600 million of those funds to pay for construction costs.

“When he became the CEO, he saw crumbling infrastructure and how our wages don’t match other area hospitals so it’s difficult to recruit. He knew based on the fact University Hospital is so much older than most hospitals — probably one of the oldest — he started talking about a brand new hospital,” HPAE President Debbie White said.

“We are happy for him and happy he’s going to a new role, but of course we are very disappointed we are losing him,” White said. “He has promoted the vision our union has, and pushed for a new hospital and funding from the state.”

DiVincenzo admits he is worried about the many competing requests for the pandemic aid. He called this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for New Jersey to do right by its sole public hospital, which serves more uninsured people than another other facility. He has brought numerous state and federal elected officials to the facility to make his point.

“I have been trying to push this for 20 years. Now the money is there,” said DiVincenzo said. “I think the state owns the facility and it has to take control and say, ’Hey listen – it’s time to put up or shut up.’ ”

Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 dedicates $42.7 million for University Hospital, the same amount as the current year. That’s in addition to the $62.7 million it is slated to receive from the state to pay a portion of charity care — what hospitals spend to treat people without insurance. There is no line-item yet for a new hospital.

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