Capitalizing on the scandal surrounding Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, a health care workers’ union has spent $50,000 on ads questioning why a for-profit hospital chain hired the public relations firm led by the governor’s chief political strategist to promote a plan to buy a struggling hospital in Passaic.
The purchase of St. Mary’s Hospital by Prime Healthcare Services in California needs the blessing of state Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd to move ahead. The State Health Planning Board will meet Friday to advise O’Dowd on whether she ought to approve the sale.
Health Care Workers United West bought radio and online advertisements coinciding with the meeting to draw attention to “NJ Health Care-Gate” — what it says is Prime’s politically motivated decision to hire Mercury Public Affairs, of which Republican strategist Mike DuHaime is a partner, said Chris Salm, research director for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West.
“We wanted to make sure regulators understood what they are getting themselves into,” Salm said.
In its home state of California, Prime is at war with labor unions, which have criticized the company for dropping most insurance carriers in order to charge more expensive out-of- network rates. The chain is also the subject of a long-running U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Medicare billing, although there have been no accusations of wrongdoing.
In the ads and on the website, njhealthcaregate.com, the union draws parallels between Prime hiring DuHaime’s firm with the allegedly politically motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee now known as “Bridgegate.” The U.S. Attorney and a joint legislative committee are investigating.
“We’ve seen it before — an aide close to Governor Christie takes action that negatively impacts the health and safety of New Jersey residents,” according to the website. “This time it’s Mike DuHaime — Christie’s chief political strategist and a former member of Christie’s transition team. It’s been reported that DuHaime is pushing the sale of St. Mary’s, a non-profit Catholic hospital, to Prime Healthcare, a for-profit hospital chain from California. The problem is that Prime Healthcare has a history of questionable billing practices and is under federal investigation for overcharging Medicare.”
The union also produced tax records of a charity founded by Prime’s CEO Prem Reddy, showing a $25,000 contribution it made in 2011 to the Drumthwacket Foundation, a nonprofit that maintains the governor’s mansion in Princeton. Christie is the honorary chairman and First Lady Mary Pat Christie its president. The contribution was made at about the same time Prime announced its intentions to buy Christ Hospital in Jersey City, although it withdrew the offer after it was criticized by union and community groups.
Prime spokesman Ed Barrera called the ads “nothing more than a desperate act by SEIU in a continuing vicious smear campaign against Prime Healthcare, which has been going on for the past four years.”
“Without Prime Healthcare, St. Mary’s Hospital will close,” Barrera said. “Prime Healthcare will keep St. Mary’s open and save thousands of jobs. Most importantly, St. Mary’s is the only remaining hospital after three nearby hospitals closed, and it is essential to preserve this safety net hospital to provide critical care for the Greater Passaic area and the surrounding communities. We appreciate that New Jersey officials are doing their due diligence.”
The sale has been under state review for 13 months.
Mercury released a statement that says no one from the company was hired to lobby the state, or meet with state officials reviewing the deal. It handles media calls, and has produced mailers and a video promoting the sale.
“Last spring we sent 3 bilingual mailers to 19,500 households in St. Mary’s market area in and around the City of Passaic to educate the public about the sale and the positive benefits of having a Top 15 US Health System close to home,” according to Mercury’s statement. “As a result of those efforts, we received feedback from patients and area residents who were interested in the issue.”