NEWARK, NJ - Union County officials are raising eyebrows at personnel swap between University Hospital and the state Department of Health, which they say might have played a role in an Elizabeth hospital not getting Level II Trauma Center status. 

Trinitas Regional Medical Center, which is less than 10 miles away from University Hospital, plans to appeal the DOH's denial before an administrative law judge, the medical center's CEO and President said. But the DOH is pushing back on claims that there was any impropriety. 

The DOH in May went against the state Health Planning Board’s approval for Trinitas to receive the designation. The title would give Trinitas additional money from Medicaid, attract well-trained staff and possibly reduce the time it takes to transport victims. 

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University Hospital, a Level I trauma center, played a major part in the DOH’s decision to deny Trinitas the Level II designation. The deputy health commissioner wrote in her denial that University relies on trauma funding to support other operations.

Former University Hospital President and CEO John Kastanis argued to the DOH in 2018 that having a new trauma center eight miles away would impact the entire emergency response system for the region. Fewer patients would result in less dollars in Medicaid for University. 

Leadership at University has gone through a major upheaval since Kastanis. Gov. Phil Murphy, fed up with University’s failing Leapfrog grades and fiscal issues, appointed Judy Persichilli last year to monitor the hospital. She would become the hospital’s interim CEO in December, shortly after issuing a scathing report about the hospital’s management. 

MORE: Newark Mayor Calls for Shakeup at University Hospital After 2 More Babies With Bacterial Infection Die

Persichilli's role at University would be short-lived. Murphy now plans to nominate her for state health commissioner. She would essentially be swapping jobs with the outgoing health commissioner, Shareef Elnahal, who is becoming the next CEO of University

Trinitas President and CEO Gary Horan told TAPinto Newark that the timing of that process raises concerns for him. The DOH, under Elnahal's leadership, recommended the state health planning board should deny Trinitas’ application for the Level II designation. 

“It is kind of ironic of the switch and the fact that University Hospital was being adamant about no new trauma centers,” Horan said. “I think if you connect the dots it would raise some issues.”

A University Hospital spokesman declined to comment. 

Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said Elnahal was officially notified on March 8 that he was a candidate for the University Hospital job and would be interviewed. Leusner added that he had received a call from a board member "earlier in the year" to gauge his interest in the position too. 

"The Commissioner did not review the Trinitas Certificate of Need matter and played no role in the decision," Leusner said. "As with all Certificate of Need matters, Department staff does an analysis of need and makes a recommendation to the State Health Planning Board (SHPB), with no involvement from the Commissioner, in order to keep the process objective."

The state health planning board in January unanimously gave its approval for Trinitas’ application after it received a recommendation for denial from the DOH. 

Elnahal recused himself from further considering Trinitas’ application after he applied, passing along the final decision to Principal Deputy Commissioner Jackie Cornell, Leusner said. Still, state Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union), said the whole process has an appearance of conflict. 

“This thing stinks,” Cryan told TAPinto Newark. “There’s got to be a way to voice the outrage that residents in not only Elizabeth feel, but also Union County.” 

Regardless of what the state health planning board approves, the commissioner (or in this case, the deputy) would still have the final say on Trinitas' application. 

Cornell would later go against the state health planning board’s decision, stating that Trinitas failed to show how its trauma center would not create a negative impact on University Hospital. 

“On average, University Hospital states that it treats and bills approximately 1,250 trauma patients per year, of which 20 percent originate from Union County,” Cornell wrote in her final decision. “Should these cases migrate to Trinitas, University Hospital's trauma billings would reduce by three hundred per year.” 

It was not immediately clear if Persichilli, the incoming health commissioner, would recuse herself from any issues arising between University and Trinitas in the future.

"No decisions have been made given that Ms. Persichilli’s role as DOH Commissioner does not begin until July 29," said Murphy Press Secretary Alex Altman. 

Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage supported Trinitas’ application. A spokeswoman for Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said he does not support Trinitas getting the Level II designation.  

"Mayor Baraka believes University Hospital's Trauma center can serve the needs of surrounding municipalities," said city spokeswoman Crystal Rosa. 

Trinitas’ application for Level II trauma designation received support from local and state lawmakers, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). 

Persichilli’s nomination for health commissioner heads to the state Senate Judiciary Committee and then to the full senate for a vote. It's unclear if Cryan would support Persichilli's nomination. 

This story was updated at 10:42 p.m. with a statement from the governor's office. 

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