Saturday, January 14, 2006

"New Jersey: Our Institutions Don't Just House Felons, They Are Felons."

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) cannot seem to stay out of the news.

We have posted many times, most recently here, about allegations that UMDNJ had offered no-bid contracts, at times requiring no work, to the politically connected; had paid for lobbyists and made political contributions, even though UMDNJ is a state institution; and seemed to be run by political bosses rather than health care professionals. More recently, the stories have centered on allegations that the University defrauded Medicare and Medicaid; multiple resignations of many top UMDNJ managers; "golden parachutes" given to departing managers who more recently have been targets of investigation; and charges that UMDNJ executives tried to cover some of this up. Threatened with federal indictment as an institution, the entire university is now working under the supervision of a federal monitor.

Early this week, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger just coined another anguished entry in the contest to find a new slogan for New Jersey inspired by the crisis at UMDNJ: "New Jersey: our institutions don't just house felons, they are felons."

In the Newark Star-Ledger were results of an internal investigation commissioned by the UMDNJ board of questionable contracting practices at the school. Former state Supreme Court Judge Gary Stein found that $16 million in contracts were awarded last year without competitive bidding. He did not find evidence of criminal activity, but that the purchasing department was "careless and undisciplined in its approval of waivers from public bidding." He also found numerous contracts awarded to the politically connected, including $75,000 for consulting to Ronald White, a fund-raiser for former New Jersey Governor James E McGreevey, and $6,000 a month for public relations to a firm in which Ms Ruthi Byrne, wife of former NJ Governor Brendan Byrne, is a partner. He also found that the school made some small political contributions, and gave $10,000 to an unregistered charity run by Newark city Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins.

However, a commentary in the Bergen County Record suggested that Stein's investigation may have underestimated the problems. Apparently Stein found that the paper trails he was following were remarkably incomplete, or, as he said, "the paperwork told us virtually nothing." And, "there was nothing that explained what was going on."

And while the federal monitor was just beginning to dig further into UMDNJ's troubles, the Star-Ledger reported that the Interim state Governor had to quash a campaign the university was about to launch to "repair the school's tarnished image." The University had already spent $250,000 to develop a "repositioning and rebranding" campaign by Winning Edge Communications that would have included radio and television advertising, billboards, and a cable television show. Supervising would be a newly hired spokeswoman, Anna Farneski, who will be paid $120,000 a year. When he heard about it, Interim Governor Codey said, "it's just not the time to do it.'

It seems like the top leaders of UMDNJ are still more worried about their image than about what they and their predecessors might have done to tarnish it.

As one editorialist at the Bergen County Record put it, "New Jersey's medical school is staffed by some world-class scientists and doctors, but it is run like a political fiefdom." So, "this insider political culture has contributed to massive failures in governance that have put the school under both criminal investigation and federal stewardship, the first-ever federal takeover of a U.S. public university. The culture at the top has to change." Also, "The problems at UMDNJ start at the top. The solutions must start there, too,"

Amen to that.

With leadership like this, is it any wonder that 20% of academic physicians are clinically depressed?

But one cure for this depression would be for us to become part of the solutions, too.

[Note: for followers of the tragic UMDNJ story, the Newark Star-Ledger has now put many of its relevant reports on a single web-page, here.]

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