O’Scanlon: NJ Department of Health’s Management of EMS Stinks of Failure and Corruption

O’Scanlon: NJ Department of Health’s Management of EMS Stinks of Failure and Corruption

Over the past year, Senator Declan O’Scanlon has tried to work with a reluctant Department of Health (DOH) in fixing major flaws in the New Jersey EMS system.

Today, after the department’s head of Public Health Infrastructure, Laboratories & Health Preparedness was dismissed, O’Scanlon is raising a red flag over the department’s management of the entire program.

“Yesterday it became grossly apparent how bad things are over at DOH when assistant commissioner Chris Neuwirth was fired from his position,” he said.

A regular at Governor Murphy’s COVID press briefings, Neuwirth oversaw EMS and the Office of Disaster Resilience.

“Vacancies and firings have plagued the department for three years, and it’s catching up to them. This firing may be very well justified and long overdue, but it begs the questions, who is the replacement to this extremely important position? Does this explain why the department hampered efforts at reform?”

During his tenure as a full-time deputy commissioner, it recently came to light that Neuwirth also had a job with Margolis Healy & Associates; a national emergency management consulting firm. “Failure to disclose a conflict like that stinks of corruption. This needs to be investigated further and Neuwirth and the Department need to explain this. This chaos comes at a time when our Health Department is most needed – as we are managing a pandemic and headed into hurricane season.”

O’Scanlon continued, “Not disclosing such a gross conflict of interest is bad, but there is a history here. Last June, DOH nearly dismantled the NJ EMS Task Force by accident. That happened under Neuwirth’s watch.”

The NJ EMS Task Force is a group of highly trained professionals from different health and preparedness host agencies that volunteer their time and expertise to supplement any region of the State that needs extra support. During the pandemic, they have evacuated nursing homes rife with COVID patients, set up field hospitals, coordinated hundreds of out-of-state ambulances to supplement local units, and assisted at the state testing sites.

“The task force is one of our greatest emergency preparedness assets, and the DOH nearly caused it to implode by not reaching out to stakeholders to discuss how to handle it. It took half a year to fix that situation and I was cautiously optimistic that the Department turned a corner. Sadly, that’s not the case,” the Senator said.

“Over the past two years, a terrible pattern has emerged at DOH when it comes to EMS – decide what needs to be fixed without asking any EMS leaders, act before thinking about the true impacts, cover it up when it goes south, promise to fix the problem, and resist any reform while exacerbating the problem. Their house is not in order.”

Some of these issues relate to understaffing at the Department. O’Scanlon notes, “There is no excuse for how short staffed the DOH is.”

On February 19, two weeks after the formation of Governor Murphy’s Executive Order establishing the Coronavirus Task Force, the administration unexpectedly fired their EMS Director. In addition, there has been a vacancy in the statutorily required position of Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Services for over a year. The acting Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Services is the State Chief Medical Examiner; Dr. Andrew Falzon, whose primary responsibilities include determining how people die, trends in how they are dying, and how persons bodies should be handled after death.

“The Department needs strong leadership, and while Commissioner Persichelli has been a leader in the fight against COVID, she has been hampered by open positions, key roles having acting appointees, and a philosophy of regulation and bureaucracy at the expense of common sense. What has come to light with the firing of Neuwirth, simply adds to the long list of institutional failures over the past several years.”

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