RARITAN TWP., NJ – Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

That statistic holds true for New Jersey. In Hunterdon, heart disease ranks a close second, just behind cancer, government data show.

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. That happens when excessive plaque buildup and narrowed artery walls make it harder for blood to flow through the body. Its first symptom is often a heart attack.

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CAD is often treated with angioplasty, a procedure where a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the blocked artery. The blocked artery is then opened by inflating a tiny balloon in it. Doctors consider it a “non-invasive procedure.”

Yet of the state’s 21 counties, Hunterdon is one of only seven that lacks a licensed elective angioplasty facility.

It’s not that Hunterdon Medical Center lacks the facilities or expertise to perform angioplasties. Its doctors work with four Mobile Intensive Care Units so patients can be evaluated and treated before they even arrive at the hospital.

HMC’s Emergency Room includes 22 private patient care areas, equipped with the latest cardiac monitoring and diagnostic equipment. But its cardiologists can only perform the procedure under emergency conditions. For non-emergency angioplasties, patients must go elsewhere.

Ironically, patients are often sent to Morristown Medical Center, where the procedure is done by the very same cardiologists who also practice at HMC.

Why can’t Hunterdon cardiologists perform the procedure here in Hunterdon?

“Nothing but pure politics,” said Assemblyman Erik Peterson in a press release. He’s been working for years to change state rules.

The quirky rules have some unusual consequences. For example, doctors might perform the emergency procedure at HMC, only to have the same patient sent to Morristown later to undergo it again – on another artery – but one that isn’t causing an emergency.

NJSpotlight recently reported on a Hunterdon couple that has had to travel to Morristown for the elective angioplasty procedure – for the eighth time.

“The lack of facilities in our counties drives healthcare revenues over state line and significantly increases the drive time for patients,” Peterson said. He has sponsored a bill that would require the state Department of Health to license additional angioplasty facilities - with a minimum of one in each county.

“HMC has consistently solicited help from the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Department of Health to no avail,” he said.

The NJSpotlight report states that “hundreds of patients” diagnosed at HMC are sent to Morristown, and quotes HMC President Robert P. Wise, who said the situation, “is really driven by red tape.”

Editor's note: TAPinto Flemington-Raritan editor Curtis Leeds received an emergency angioplasty and three stents at HMC eight years ago. A fourth stent was installed shortly after at Morristown Medical Center.