It’s the middle of the night and you’re at the hospital with a loved one suffering from a life-threatening illness. The doctor tells you they need specialized care at another hospital to have the best chance for a recovery. But first, the staff will need to comply with a new law that requires a series of time-consuming administrative actions, simply because the other hospital — one of the best in the nation at this particular procedure — is located across state lines. The minutes tick by, and each one counts — but you’re delayed while the care team navigates the artificial roadblocks put in place to discourage your family member’s transfer.
That’s the scene that would be legally required to play out in hospital rooms across New Jersey if a new bill passes the state Legislature. Dubbed the Patient Protection Act, it would require a new set of rules before sending a patient out of state for care; rules that would not apply to in-state transfers. These include providing a description of the reason for the transfer, a list of in-state facilities offering similar services and, often, an explanation about why the patient is not being transferred to a New Jersey hospital. This same information would also need to be provided to the state Department of Health.
Patients are already given the choice of where to be transferred under current regulations, and this bill creates an unnecessary burden on care providers, who will now need to pause to fulfill arbitrary regulatory requirements, losing minutes when seconds count. Most of all, it adds a complicated variable for patients and their families at a time when they need to be leaning on the expertise of their care team the most.
The truth is, leaving the state for medical care is common practice for people living near the Pennsylvania and New York borders, where the metropolitan area dictates far more than the lines on a map. Patients may see a community provider in South Jersey, for example, but come to an academic medical center in Philadelphia for certain surgeries or specialty appointments. In many cases, patients don’t think twice about making a short drive that often doesn’t even require them to leave their insurance network.
New Jersey is also an attractive destination for tourists, but what happens under this bill when a Pennsylvania or New York resident needs emergency care while visiting the shore? The new regulations would make it more difficult for those patients to get closer to their home.
State lines are already an arbitrary barrier due to the alliances and investments health systems have made together to improve the care we provide to patients. Our two health systems — Shore Medical Center in New Jersey and Penn Medicine in Philadelphia — have been working together for more than a decade, and rather than sending patients into Pennsylvania as the first option, most of the coordinated care we provide keeps them close to home. For example, Shore Medical Center patients are able to receive an array of specialty care — for cardiac conditions and cancer — nearby. This includes participation in clinical trials that once would have required patients to take frequent trips into Philadelphia.
Perhaps the best example of where this bill would hurt is in the Heart Rescue program, which offers a quick path for emergency air transport for the most critically ill patients. These patients begin their care at Shore Medical Center, but doctors from Penn are collaborating on treatment every step of the way. Time is critical for these patients, and stopping this process in its tracks to fulfill regulatory requirements would cost minutes no one can afford. Ours is just one example of the many alliances between New Jersey providers and out-of-state systems that benefit patients.
When time is of the essence, patients should expect their care team to provide the best possible treatment while also ensuring the transfer goes smoothly. This bill would interfere with doctors’ ability to do both, and ultimately, patients would be imperiled. That’s not fair, and it reeks of protectionism and politics being billed as “patient rights.” It’s misguided public policy that will harm New Jersey patients, and New Jersey lawmakers should vote to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Ralph Muller is CEO of the University of Penn-sylvania Health System. Ron Johnson is the president and CEO of Shore Medical Center.