Just weeks after the introduction of a bill that would enhance scrutiny over surgical centers throughout the state, more than a dozen ambulatory surgical facilities flooded the campaign coffers of influential lawmakers with checks totaling nearly $40,000.
The bill, which would require one room surgery centers to be licensed with the Department of Health, and require periodic inspections of the facilities, was introduced by state Sen. Joe Vitale, (D-19), of Woodbridge. The money was donated just two weeks after the issuance of a damning report that showed unlicensed facilities failed health inspections at a much higher rate than licensed centers.
The bill is due to be heard in the Senate Health committee next week.
Among the recipients of donations from several surgery centers were state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), of Teaneck, who is chairwoman of the health committee, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, who would ultimately be responsible for posting the assembly version of the bill for a vote.
Oliver received $28,000 from 14 surgical centers throughout the state. According to the latest report filed with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, those donations were received on April 12, a month after the bill was introduced in the assembly.
Oliver said any bill that makes surgical centers safer for patients will be considered by the assembly.
“I welcome support from many segments of New Jersey, but I have no tolerance for surgery centers that have been cited for unsafe conditions such as poor infection control and unsterilized equipment,” she said. “Any legislation that has been introduced to make this industry safer will receive the proper consideration, as will any other steps that are needed following these recent revelations about unsafe conditions.”
Weinberg received donations totaling $11,000 from at least 11 ambulatory surgical centers. ELEC reports show those donations were received April 8, less than a month after the bill was introduced in the senate.
Currently, single room centers fall into two groups. One group is accredited by Medicare and is subject to sporadic inspections for compliance with Medicare standards. Another group, which does not accept Medicare, is not licensed and has no inspection requirement. Vitale’s bill would require that all centers apply for a license with the Department of Health.
Licensing by the state would require that all centers face inspection every two or three years.
Weinberg said she met with representatives of the New Jersey Association of Ambulatory Surgery Centers, who she said supports a uniform set of criteria for all surgical centers. She said nobody she met with tried to persuade her to kill the bill.
“The people I met with at a fundraiser were in fact supportive of state regulations and supportive of making sure that any of the bad actors or any inappropriate practices were prevented from happening,” said Weinberg. “That was my general impression.”
But in a letter to members of the NJAASC, Jeffrey Shanton, chairman of the organization’s Advocacy and Legislative Affairs Committee, said the legislation as written “could force surgical centers (small businesses and employers) to close.”
“It is estimated that over 120 one-room centers would be affected by this newly introduced legislation,” Shanton wrote. ” Unfortunately, what was forgotten or conveniently ignored by the crafters of the bill was the scope of this licensure — what it entailed. The big issue will be the physical/architectural requirements of state licensure. The majority of these one-room centers will have a hard time, or not be able to comply with, these requirements.”
Shanton also warned that under current law, licensed ambulatory surgery centers are subject to the state’s ambulatory assessment fee. Licensing all centers could make all subject to the tax, he said.
Adding to angst over the legislation is a recent report compiled by the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, which found that of 91 facilities inspected by the state health department, 49 did not meet the standards to participate in Medicare. A total of 25 percent were cited for “Immediate Jeopardy,” which according to the report is “a violation which is defined as noncompliance with established rules that has caused, or is likely to cause, serious injury, harm, impairment or death to a patient.”
Of the 40 unlicensed facilities that were inspected, 17 were cited for “immediate jeopardy” of which seven were closed temporarily.
“Based on this snapshot, 43% of the unlicensed Surgical Practices reviewed were noncompliant with certain serious safety requirements,” the report concluded. “Compared to the 15% noncompliance rate found in the licensed ASCs reviewed, there is evidence that consumers may be at greater risk in unlicensed Surgical Practices than in licensed ASCs.”
Larry Trenk, president of the NJAASC, said the organization does support some sort of licensing and operating criteria, but said it has to be realistic. The group is scheduled to meet with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Vitale, next week.
Trenk said he was not aware of the donations and referred calls to the group’s attorney, Mark Manigan. Manigan, who was a member of Gov. Chris Christie’s transition team, said the donations were part of a larger “advocacy effort” and not specific to the Vitale legislation.
That said, the association is hoping to work with Vitale to change portions of the bill.
I don’t think there is any stakeholder in this who would say that the bill as written gets us where we think the industry should go and where we think Senator Vitale wants to take the industry,” he said.