Cooper University Health Care kicked off 2023 with the welcome news of a credit rating upgrade by Moody’s Investor Service, coming on the heels of a November upgrade from S&P Global Ratings, marking Cooper’s continued momentum emerging from the pandemic.
“We were in an unprecedented way, unlike most health organizations not only in the state but in the country, recently upgraded in our credit rating, which hasn’t occurred in many, many years,” George Norcross III, chairman of the Cooper UHC board of trustees, told NJBIZ. “And that’s a significant achievement in of itself given the reengineering of Cooper from a business perspective and financial perspective beginning perhaps 10 years ago.”
Kevin O’Dowd, Cooper UHC co-CEO, along with Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, echoed Norcross’s sentiments about receiving the upgrades, especially as those ratings agencies currently have a negative outlook for the health care industry.
“And even though they’re running around the country downgrading folks, we bucked the trend,” O’Dowd told NJBIZ. “And that’s a pretty positive commentary from both organizations about what they thought about what’s been happening at Cooper.”
O’Dowd explained that in addition to it being a validation of Cooper’s financial strength, it’s also a recognition of Cooper’s clinical outcomes, clinical proficiency, and quality levels. “Our core business is about helping other people,” said O’Dowd. “And I think it’s not only in some respects a validation of what our core service is, which is to provide that service to the community, but also the financial underpinnings, balance sheet strength, validation of our strategic initiatives, and executing those strategic initiatives.”
Norcross emphasized that Cooper has little debt for an institution of its size and has significant cash resources, which he said executives intend to invest, as evidenced by the $2 billion Camden expansion project announced by Cooper last September. The investment is the largest in the county’s history, and among the largest capital projects in the history of New Jersey and Philadelphia.
The announcement drew a notable lineup that included appearances by Gov. Phil Murphy, former Gov. Chris Christie, and a video message from television personality Kelly Ripa.
The expansion will include three new clinical towers with more than 100 private rooms, bringing Cooper to 745 beds when completed. The facilities will be environmentally sustainable, using emerging technologies and innovations to provide support for the academic health system. The investment will dramatically transform and expand the Camden campus. Construction of the first building, at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and Haddon Avenue, is slated for a groundbreaking sometime this year.
“Not only does this announcement represent the culmination of Cooper’s amazing turnaround since it faced bankruptcy at the turn of the century, but it is also a sign of our commitment to and faith in Camden, its residents and our shared future,” Norcross said at the time of the announcement.
He says that the project makes an enormous statement and commitment to the community.
“The impact, in particular, is a continuing statement, as has been the case for many decades, that Cooper remain headquartered in the City of Camden in perpetuity,” Norcross explained. “We expect to expand every facet of the institution, including MD Anderson [Cancer Center at Cooper], the hospital itself, our pavilions, patient rooms, our trauma care, medical school, research facilities. So, this will probably become quadruple the size that exists today over the next five to seven years.”
O’Dowd describes the Camden expansion as a big deal. “It’s a very significant part of us putting ourselves in a position to be able to continue to serve not only the City of Camden, which has been our home city for 135 years, but also to serve the surrounding communities,” he said.
Norcross is especially bullish about the direction his native Camden is headed. He pointed out that Cooper is the largest employer in both the county and the city, and the largest single employer of Camden residents with a particular emphasis on recruiting city residents to become team members.
“When you think of Camden, you clearly think of Cooper,” Norcross explained. “You also think of Campbell Soup Co. You think of Rutgers University. You think of Rowan University and some of the other big organizations that exist in the city and have for a long period of time. Camden is clearly on the move and, in this region, is certainly recognized as having turned the corner. There’s quite a bit to go, but it’s certainly turned a corner and is becoming a very attractive location for not only businesses but residential development and otherwise.”
On the question of what he sees for the Camden of the future and what he hopes it looks like in 2030 and beyond, Norcross said he believes Camden returns to its roots. “Which I would equate to when my father was a little boy. It was the city, and most vibrant and central point of commerce, and otherwise, in southern New Jersey,” he explained. “And given its geographic location and its river that it borders on, its highway system, its rail system, I think it’s going to return to that prominence.”
In addition to the Camden project, Norcross and O’Dowd pointed to other investments and expansions, centered around where the health care business is headed.
“We’ve about completed a $150 million regional facility in Moorestown, which is going to be one of our mega-regional facilities in Burlington County,” said Norcross. “And we’re likewise to announce shortly another significant one in the lower end bordering on Gloucester [and] Camden counties. And we’re likely to probably have another which makes ease of patient convenience for our many doctors and specialists that people want to visit in a single facility. The days of multiple physician offices are, with the exception of primary care, behind us.”
“That’s something that was part of our planning for years and now it’s actually coming to fruition,” O’Dowd said. “Those types of growth strategies [that] keep care in the community, increase points of access, allow New Jersey patients to receive top-flight care here rather than have to leave the state. So, it’s another opportunity to meet people where they are in their communities and to bring Cooper into communities where we haven’t had a physical presence necessarily in the past.”
Norcross added that patients want one-stop care, which has led to a focus on locating different services all under one roof. “That becomes an attractive business model for what we think is the future,” he said. “The mothership, meaning Camden, is going to end up becoming a 2.5, $3 billion facility, which will expand our footprint here, and continue to engage with the medical school, which is a big part of Cooper. The research and learning capabilities that are coming from that, and MD Anderson in of itself, is certainly our biggest driver. And we are the level-one trauma center for all of southern New Jersey, and have been for many, many years.”
O’Dowd said Cooper is energized about and focused on adding team members and access points to expand the number of patients they can serve. “And I feel that’s what I’m most excited about, to be able to give the opportunity to more South Jersey patients to access, what I believe, are some of the best physicians, Advance Practice Providers, and nurses in the country,” O’Dowd said. “So once people have an opportunity to connect with our system, they stay connected.”
Another example of expanding the system’s footprint came late last year in December when Cooper and Cape Regional Health System signed a Letter of Intent on a merger. The combined health system would boast two hospitals with more than 900 licensed beds; revenue exceeding $2.2 billion annually; more than 10,000 members; more than 900 employed physicians in three physician groups; more than 450 Advance Practice Providers; 130-plus ambulatory locations across eight counties; and six urgent care centers.
The signing of the LOI is the first step in a lengthy regulatory review. Because of that process, Norcross and O’Dowd responded to questions about the deal by referring to official statements issued in December.
Cooper University Health Care’s leadership team landed on this year’s Power 100 list. Click here to see the full list.
“For more than 135 years, Cooper has continued to expand its reach to provide advanced health care to the people of South Jersey,” said Norcross at the time. “This merger of two trusted health care organizations will benefit tens of thousands of residents and visitors to Cape May County and strengthen the overall health care system in South Jersey.”
“By expanding our current working relations with the Cape Regional team, we will be able to bring additional advanced cancer and specialty health care services to local residents close to where they live,” Mazzarelli said.
All these developments that were announced in the second half of 2022 and into 2023, are in addition to Cooper’s efforts during the pandemic. Cooper played a critical role on the front lines of the COVID response, operating as a regional coordinator for the seven southern counties in New Jersey while also facilitating the state response.
O’Dowd said he was proud of Cooper’s partnership with the Murphy Administration on this unprecedented emergency, crediting the governor and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli for the strategy of dividing the state for a regional response effort. “And we were fortunate enough to be asked to be one of those health systems,” said O’Dowd. “So, we jumped in with two feet. The entire Cooper team that was engaged in the pandemic response was also wearing … two hats at the same time. Which is thinking about our system and our people and the communities that we serve. We were also thinking more broadly about how we can work in close partnership with the other regional health systems in the southern region to maximize our response efforts.”
As Cooper moves forward and continues to emerge from the pandemic, O’Dowd concedes that it is a tough time in health care with issues such as labor shortages, staff burnout, workplace challenges, and overcrowding throughout the state, especially as patient demand for services postponed during COVID grows.
The focus moving forward, Norcross and O’Dowd said, is growth and expansion of the institution while continuing to provide core services to the region. “At this moment, we’re firing on all cylinders. We have a great team of over 10,000 people that work with us and we have a great culture that exists,” Norcross said. “All during COVID, we rewarded our team members with hero bonuses because they were caring for people [who] were in dire need of care. We pride ourselves on recruiting and supporting nursing education and training at the Rutgers Nursing School.”
O’Dowd added that Cooper is a not-for-profit organization beholden only to the community. “We’re not designed to make money. That’s not our mission. We’re designed to earn enough money that allows us to reinvest in ourselves, principally our people,” he explained. “That’s where we spend most of our money, on Cooper team members.”
With that not-for-profit status, O’Dowd says, comes the responsibility to reinvest in themselves to support that mission of serving the community.
“And that’s really our mindset to be able to control our own destiny going forward and to continue to provide the highest-quality care for the people in the southern counties,” said O’Dowd, emphasizing that focus on putting more access points in their communities to access the Cooper system.
“I’m excited about our prospects of continued growth. We’ve experienced a lot of positive growth over the last five years,” O’Dowd explained. “And when I look out at the five, 10, and 15 years to come, I see nothing but positivity in terms of expanding our reach.”