By David Cruz
State Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) convened a meeting of Essex County Democratic lawmakers in Newark to hear from the public about what should happen to University Hospital in Newark as part of the proposed merger of the University of Medicine and Dentistry (UMDNJ) and Rutgers.
The merger of UMDNJ with Rutgers is supposed to be settled by July 1, but there are more loose ends to this deal than there are signed agreements. In fact, there are no signed agreements and the politics are getting even more complicated. Sen. Rice, who is on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, says George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic fundraiser and power broker, has been pushing a deal that benefits the southern part of the state, at the expense of Newark’s University Hospital.
“It started pretty much with the south dictating to, not just the north, but pretty much the rest of the state of New Jersey, and that’s under the leadership of George Norcross,” said Rice. “I respect my colleagues who feel that they have to, more or less, work with that ‘political boss’, even though we get elected and he does not.”
Norcross says both Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University would benefit from the merger by seeing increased enrollment and private funding. He is part of a handful of interested parties and lawmakers who are meeting privately with the governor to come up with a deal that could get legislative support, but critics are concerned that Newark’s University Hospital, which would go it alone under the latest version of the merger deal, would end up being a casualty.
“The University of Medicine and Dentistry is the second largest employer in the whole city so whatever happens to that university and that hospital is gonna mean a whole lot in terms of employment and economic opportunities as well as healthcare, not to speak of the higher education opportunities that should be present in the northern part of the state,” said James Harris, the president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP.
Junius Williams, who directs the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark, said it is ironic that the University Hospital is at risk. It was the building of the hospital that displaced hundreds of Newarkers and helped fuel the 1967 riots. He said a 1966 agreement that committed the University Hospital to create employment and educational opportunities for Newarkers.
“These programs did in fact get underway and have produced people who probably still work at the medical school now or have just recently retired,” said Junius Williams, the director of the Abbott Leadership Institute. “It didn’t happen as much as we wanted but we did get some of the jobs from there.”
Williams warned that unless the state stays committed to University Hospital, those guarantees are not likely to be kept. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo says he appreciates the concerns but said, “I can tell you that I have a commitment from the governor that this facility stays under state control, the medical school and the hospital . We have 3,500 employees that are working at the facility. They’re doing an outstanding job and the governor and the conversations I’ve had, knows the importance of the facility and the role that it plays, not only in Essex County but in the state of New Jersey and that is a commitment that I have that it stay under state control.”
Today’s meeting was intended to give the general public a chance to be heard on this issue, but every one of the speakers who testified was representing a group with a vested interest. One politician called it a necessary evil, important mostly because it allowed those making the decisions behind closed doors to know that the state’s largest city, or at least its representatives, are watching.