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Hundreds Voice Concerns about Proposed UMDNJ Merger with Rutgers

Cite city's failing economy, residents' health

After a state advisory committee recommended combining three health divisions at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, more than 150 people packed a meeting to complain the consolidation could endanger the health of Newark residents and hurt the city's struggling economy.

Last month, the committee, formed in April, issued a preliminary report that recommended combining three of UMDNJ's divisions — Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey — with Rutgers University's New Brunswick-Piscataway campuses.

According to their report, the goal would be "to establish a first-class comprehensive university-based health sciences center." Gov. Chris Christie supports the merger, which was proposed earlier this year by a state higher education task force led by former Gov. Thomas Kean.

But, on Thursday, hospital employees, students, politicians and residents voiced their concerns at a meeting at the Leroy F. Smith Jr. Public Safety Building about the possible merger and restructuring of the campus.

The advisory committee's report said that while UMDNJ, also known as University Hospital, is known for excellence and should remain in Newark, the hospital needs extensive capital improvements and "the status quo for (University Hospital) is untenable."

The future for UMDNJ's other Newark-based schools and programs is uncertain. The report said the committee was not prepared to make a recommendation on whether they should be merged.

James Gonzalez, the hospital's acting president and chief executive officer, said Thursday that the hospital was reversing a long trend of losses and moving toward financial stability.

But a majority of the crowd who attended the public hearing disagreed. During the three-hour session, several people held up signs that read "Save UMDNJ" and pleaded their case to the committee — including local politicians.

Newark Council President Donald Payne Jr. said UMDNJ President Dr. William Owen made great strides to fix the university and he does not want to see the hospital taken away and turned into the "great white elephant on Bergen Street."

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said the county could not afford to lose another hospital and he asked the committee to look at other ways to improve the facility.

DiVincenzo also praised University Hospital for their high quality of service, which he used in June when he broke four ribs after a bicycle accident.

Meanwhile, many of the UMDNJ staff members and students touted the medical and research successes of the university and the importance of University Hospital, which is the only Level 1 trauma center in the region and provides many community programs to the poor.

Melissa Jimenez, a nursing student, said she wants the nursing school to stay in Newark so she could continue on with graduate studies and continue helping the less fortunate in the Ironbound neighborhood.

Jimenez said working in the Ironbound Community Corporation two years ago helped her make a life-changing decision to go into the nursing field.

"My upbringing in Newark and my experienced working with the faculty has made me passionate about giving back to the community I grew up in and serving the marginalized, underserved populations of Newark," Jimenez said. "This is why the UMDNJ School of Nursing is my first choice. Please make sure this can happen."

Neal Kaushal, a fourth-year medical student, said New Jersey Medical School "embodies the spirit of community service" and it received $75 million in cash from the National Institutes of Health.

Kaushal said there are aspects of the university that can be run more efficiently and the reorganization should focus on improving Newark schools as well, not just New Brunswick.

Kaushal challenged the committee members to "set aside any political leanings you might have and create a super university in Newark" that would include the medical and dental schools, the teaching hospital and perhaps Rutgers law and business schools.

In addition to the objections, opponents questioned the details of the possible merger.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said he sent a letter to UMDNJ officials, asking how much of the hospital's debt would be assumed by Rutgers University and how much the merger would cost.

Weinberg, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizen committee, also asked in her letter if Robert Wood Johnson Medical School could lose federal funding with the merger and what would happen to students enrolled in dual programs.

Kathleen Hernandez, executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1031, wanted to know what will happen to the workers, if there would be any layoffs and how much the changes would cost taxpayers. The union represents 600 UMDNJ supervisors and many other state college workers. 

"What proof does the committee have that changes to the structure of UMDNJ and Rutgers would provide a better education to students, and better services to the public?" she said.

Peter McDunough, Rutgers University's vice president for public affairs, said both university presidents have been in constant contact with each other on moving forward with the merger proposal, "But how it will work out, it's way too early to tell."

Joyce Wilson-Harley, of West Orange, who is one of the five advisory committee members, said the board has until the end of the year to issue a final report. It then will be up to the governor and state legislature to decide how to implement the recommendations.

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