COVID killed 9, infected a thousand at one of NJ's largest hospital systems, lawsuit says
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RWJBarnabas Health, one of the state's largest hospital systems, has revealed In a lawsuit against its insurance carrier that more than 1,000 patients and staff became infected with the coronavirus within its facilities and nine staff members died during the COVID pandemic.
The health system, with 11 acute-care hospitals throughout the state and more than 32,000 employees and 9,000 affiliated physicians, has filed suit against Zurich American Insurance Co. It alleges the insurer breached its contract by refusing to cover the health system's pandemic-related financial losses and extra expenses.
"Like many businesses, RWJBarnabas has suffered substantial financial losses" because of the pandemic, since many elective procedures and surgeries were canceled or postponed, and extra expenses were incurred to take the steps needed to recover, the lawsuit said.
The health system "has had over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 contractions at its properties among its patients and staff," the lawsuit said. "Tragically, nine RWJBarnabas staff have passed away after contracting COVID-19 at its properties."
Information about COVID outbreaks affecting staff and patients at hospitals has not previously been reported, so the statement in the lawsuit offered a first, general glimpse of how the pandemic affected a large New Jersey health system.
No information was provided about the facilities where the infections or deaths had occurred. The health system declined to provide further details.
“The lawsuit was filed in context of protecting our rights for future discussion with the insurance carrier," said Ellen Greene, a spokeswoman. "We cannot comment further on ongoing litigation.”
RWJBarnabas hospitals include St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Jersey City Medical Center, Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, Community Medical Center in Toms River, Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch and its southern campus in Lakewood, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, and RWJ University Hospitals in Hamilton, Rahway and Somerset.
The health system also includes a myriad of ambulatory surgery centers, outpatient services, and behavioral health and children's services.
Unlike nursing homes, hospitals are not required to report staff deaths or outbreaks until a year after the state's public health emergency ends. Even then, the information can be aggregated by an organization such as the New Jersey Hospital Association so as not to identify specific institutions.
Such information would be useful to compare the effectiveness of strategies to control the virus's spread as well as to address concerns of potential staff and patients.
For example, there is no data to measure the effectiveness of vaccinations of hospital employees in preventing coronavirus infections, because infection rates from earlier in the pandemic have not been reported. Studies published this week about hospitals in Texas and California showed an extremely low rate of infection among staff who had been fully vaccinated.
Asked Wednesday whether New Jersey hospitals had seen the same results, Gov. Phil Murphy turned to the state's former epidemiologist, who leads the Health Department's professional advisory committee. "I don't know that we actually have that data to see the trend downward," said Dr. Eddy Bresnitz.
While hospitals and health systems were uniquely affected by the pandemic as they simultaneously experienced extra expenses to care for COVID patients and lost revenue from canceled procedures, other businesses — forced to shut down completely during the lockdown — have taken their insurance companies to court, arguing that their financial losses should be covered.
Among them are the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, as well as country clubs, hairdressers and restaurants.
At RWJBarnabas, staff members lost to the pandemic are known to include three employees of Clara Maass Medical Center: Barbara Birchenough, a nurse who died within days of her planned retirement last April; Nestor Bautista, a nurses' aide who worked with Birchenough; and John Lara, an emergency room technician.
Other employees of RWJBarnabas who died of COVID included Sandra Hardy-Rogers, an emergency room technician at Community Medical Center; Jose Islani Sapal, a health care technologist at St. Barnabas and Robert Wood Johnson; and Robert J. Tarrant, a CPR instructor for RWJBarnabas Health and a former ICU nurse at two of its hospitals.
The lawsuit against Zurich, filed in state Superior Court in Essex County, said the insurer had denied it millions of dollars in insurance coverage for financial losses suffered during the pandemic. RWJBarnabas' policy with Zurich entitled it to up to $2.5 billion in coverage, the lawsuit said.
No amount of financial losses was specified by the health system.
A spokeswoman for Zurich North America said the company does not comment on litigation.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in the medical world affect the health of you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.