NEWARK – From state to county to city, Newark and Essex are united on one front: keeping the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the university hospital in the Brick City.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker led a panel of more than a dozen elected officials in voicing in synchrony their five principles that they are prepared to defend as the state moves toward merging UMDNJ into Rutgers University.
“We will not allow this process to move forward unless we are sure that our principles are adhered to.” Booker told reporters in City Hall today that he is concerned that “the haste at which this is moving will undermine the security and the strength (of these institutions).”
The mayor was joined by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and many other elected officials.
“We must protect the future of higher education in Newark, and medical education,” Oliver said.
Essex County’s hospitals have been reduced from 11 to seven, DiVincenzo said, and Newark has retained only three of its five hospitals over the last few years.
“There’s no question that we have a healthcare crisis,” he said, noting that two of Newark’s three remaining hospitals – one privately held, St. Michael’s; the other, UMDNJ, publicly held – have financial problems.
DiVincenzo said the state has been taking a “Band-Aid approach” with its medical school’s financial woes: “It’s always about resolving that particular year.”
But he vowed that UMDNJ will not be closing, as has been rumored in Essex County. “That’s not going to happen,” he said. “UMDNJ is going to remain in Newark. The hospital is going to remain in Newark.”
These three officials, some of the most powerful in the state, were joined by many other – some who are normally politically not allied. In attendance today were state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), Ron Rice (D-28), and a representative for Dick Codey (D-27), who is out of town. Assemblypersons Albert Coutinho (D-29), Jack McKeon (D-27), Mila Jasey (D-27), Grace Spencer (D-29), and Tom Giblin (D-34) were standing with the group, as were Newark Councilpersons Donald Payne Jr., Mildred Crump, Darrin Sharif, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ron Rice Jr.
Sharif, whose Central Ward contains many of the higher education institutions, said, “We’re going to have to be relentless in the pressure we apply from the grass roots.”
The five statements of principle the delegation put forth were as follows:
1. University Hospital must remain strong and vibrant as the region’s only tier-one trauma center.
2. The community must continue to support institutions of higher education in Newark, including N.J. Institute of Technology and Rutgers-Newark.
3. The current UMDNJ review process is inadequate, and no decision should be made about the future of any of UMDNJ’s multiple components until a full investigation is conducted.
4. Taxpayers deserve financial transparency and no detailed financial analysis of the possible merger has been completed by the state.
5. The school and hospital as an economic engine and job creator must be protected.
“They are incredible movers for jobs – not just any jobs, quality jobs,” Booker said. “The advisory committee’s report is not enough…To peel away parts of the system undermines the whole.”
The mayor said, “We are bound together, every level of government…using every power and authority we have, collectively.”
When Rowan University was allowed by executive order to open a medical school in South Jersey, Senator Rice said, Essex County didn’t challenge it on behalf of UMDNJ. “We should have,” he said, and the collection of officials is committed to challenging this merger if it isn’t done according to their requests.
Asked whether he has spoken to Gov. Chris Christie about the merger, Booker said he had not. “I have spoken to representatives from his office. I have not gotten adequate assurances,” he said. “Do I intend to speak to the governor? Absolutely, yes.”
Oliver said that if the boards at the universities come to an agreement on a merger – which is out of the hands of mayors and lawmakers – the governor must then present a reorganization plan to the state Legislature for approval or rejection within 60 days of receipt.
“As an independent legislator, I have one vote,” the speaker said. “I would reject the reorganization plan (if the concerns aren’t addressed).”
She said she has been presented no timeline for a merger approval or a reorganization plan, but warned that it would cause great disturbance as the lawmakers prepare for the next budget season. “It has gross implications for a budget that my house will deliberate upon,” Oliver said.
Senator Rice said, “This train need to be slowed down and that’s what this is all about.”