Taken from NJ Spotlight News
By Lilo Stainton
July 7, 2023
New Jersey lawmakers agreed to boost funding by about $35 million for University Hospital in Newark as part of the last-minute budget negotiations that added more than a billion dollars to the proposed state spending plan for the fiscal year that began Saturday.
But advocates for University, the state’s only public hospital and the region’s top trauma center, said the increase — which provides a total of $60 million for capital work — is far from sufficient, given the facility’s needs. The 43-year-old main building experiences intermittent flooding and power failures, staff members report, and the emergency department operates at twice its annual capacity.
“The New Jersey Legislature has once again passed a budget that fails to provide adequate funding for the state’s only public hospital. University Hospital needs more than a band-aid solution, and while $60 million appears to be a significant investment on paper, it is actually woefully inadequate,” said Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest health care union, which represents some 1,200 workers at University. White said the hospital is more than twice the age of others in the region, with crumbling infrastructure. “HPAE will continue to speak up in support of fully funding New Jersey’s only public hospital; we cannot simply accept these token investments.”
Hospital leaders in January unveiled a draft redevelopment plan for buildings on the 60-acre Newark campus and have been working to raise the $1.8 billion it was then projected to cost and looking to build community support for the project. University Hospital has a unique commitment to caring for the local population — the majority of whom are low-income people of color — codified in an agreement known as the Newark Accords drafted in the wake of the city’s 1967 uprising.
But amassing the necessary capital has proved challenging, despite the support of many powerful politicians, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and state Democratic lawmakers from Essex County Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz and budget chair Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin. The quest has also been impacted by the departure of former hospital president Dr. Shereef Elnahal — who had previously served as state health commissioner, but left University for a job in the Biden administration last summer — and the death of longtime Democratic state Sen. Ron Rice, a onetime Newark police officer and forceful community champion.
Hospital president and CEO Ed Jimenez said about $200 million in public funding had been set aside for the redevelopment project as of April, or about one-third of the funding needed to complete the first phase of work. An update was not available Thursday.
Advocates like White had called on Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat halfway through his second and final four-year term, to commit as much as $600 million to University’s reconstruction from what was, as of April, $1.4 billion in remaining federal COVID-19 pandemic aid. Instead, Murphy included just under $80 million in operating funding in his initial spending proposal for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, of which $35 million was dedicated to capital improvements at the hospital. The hospital received an extra $200 million in previous state budgets, part of $450 million in federal funding dedicated to improving trauma programs in the wake of the pandemic.
The $54.3 billion spending package Murphy signed late Friday, following a mad dash that left lawmakers voting on the budget before they had the details, includes $60 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for capital work at University Hospital’s emergency room and maternity department. It also provides, as it did in past years, almost $45 million in institutional support, or operating costs — about $2 million of which goes to fund Newark’s emergency response system and $1 million for University’s cancer center. Another $13 million, up from $8 million last year, covers costs related to the hospital’s agreement with Rutgers University, which employes some of the staff.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) — a member of the GOP’s budget negotiations team — voted against the spending bill Friday, calling the $60 million in capital funds “a disgrace.” In a passionate speech on the Assembly floor Munoz, a nurse who volunteered at University during the COVID-19 pandemic, told her colleagues, “Shame on us” for not doing more. “We have one public hospital in this state. One. We should be doing a better job,” she said.
GOP assemblywoman blasts Democrats
“We say this budget reflects our values. Well, it doesn’t reflect the values of the people who need (University) most, the people of northern New Jersey,” Munoz said. University Hospital’s busy trauma center — one of three state-designated Tier 1 programs in New Jersey — is named for her late husband Dr. Eric Munoz, who spent his career there and also served in the Assembly. Her two sons, now physicians, also did their residency training at the Newark hospital.
Munoz also blasted Democratic leaders for the hundreds of millions of dollars in last-minute additions to the budget, many of which benefited public projects in their hometowns or counties. “It’s great to have ballparks. It’s great to have bike paths. But what happens when people get hurt at these places? What happens when you end up at our one public hospital’s trauma center?” she said, describing crowded trauma bays where procedures are occasionally done by flashlight. “Every one of you may end up there one day. And you’ll be glad you do, because they have such great care. But they deserve the respect. The city of Newark deserves the respect.”
Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate did not respond to requests Thursday for comment about the budget allocation to University.
University Hospital is also slated to receive some $396 million to pay salaries and benefits for the 3,500 state employees who work in its system, under the new budget. And it will benefit from several forms of formula aid, including an estimated $63 million in charity care funding to help cover the cost of treating people who don’t have health insurance, plus tens of millions of dollars for graduate medical education.