Changes ordered to NJ veterans homes

New laws mandate more disclosure, oversight after COVID-19 deaths
Credit: (Mark Olsen /New Jersey National Guard)
April 19, 2020: New Jersey Army National Guard Combat Medic Spc. Gabriel S. Fayed at the New Jersey Veterans Home, Paramus

Quarterly town meetings for family members. Greater disclosure around emergency response and staff compensation. State employees to serve as resident advocates for each facility.

These are among the changes coming to New Jersey’s three state-run veterans homes, thanks to a package of bills Gov. Phil Murphy signed late Thursday. The three facilities in Menlo Park, Paramus and Vineland were particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 150 residents died and family members struggled to get updated information from administrators.

So many deaths

Close to one-third of New Jersey’s more than 27,000 total COVID-19 fatalities can be traced to congregate living settings like nursing homes, a situation that has raised concerns for health care experts and prompted state lawmakers to hold hearings on the pandemic response. Those sessions involved passionate testimony from family members, frontline workers and industry leaders, and led to dozens of proposals to improve infection control and staff training, enhance communication with loved ones, and beef up government oversight of these operations.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office is now investigating the response to the COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes in the state. The federal Justice Department launched a probe into the veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus, which had the most fatalities. Both those inquiries appear to be ongoing.

“Everyone knew from early in the pandemic that the most vulnerable populations are in nursing homes and veterans’ homes,” Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), who led the charge on several reforms, said in a statement Thursday. “Going forward, we must give more attention and devote additional resources to these facilities. We must also make sure they are being run by people with proper credentials and work experience. We can’t allow these residents to be forgotten victims of the most tragic public health crisis of our time.”

New veterans home measures

Many of the nursing home reforms have now been codified as law; the additional veterans home measures Murphy signed Thursday include:

  • A-5849/S-3918 – Requires the adjutant general of the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) to send weekly reports to the state health commissioner on veterans homes the department operates during every future public health emergency. Reports related to COVID-19 will be required through December 2021.
  • A-5850/S-3906 – Requires DMAVA veterans homes to hold quarterly town hall meetings with family members, or other resident guardians.
  • A-5851/S-3905 – Allows a resident’s family members to remove the veteran from a DMAVA home under certain emergency circumstances; this was not permitted during the pandemic because of the strict infection control requirements.
  • A-5852/S-3904 – Requires DMAVA veterans memorial homes to communicate resident updates with family members via at least two communication means, including paper mail, email, text and voice call.
  • A-5853/S-3903 – Requires administrator and assistant administrator at each veterans home have prior work experience in a clinical setting.
  • A-5854/S-3907– Requires DMAVA to create a “resident advocate” position within state government for each veterans home; this person is charged with advocating in residents’ behalf on issues with operations at each of the homes, similar to the nursing home advocates that New Jersey has worked to deploy in recent years.
  • A-5855/S-3908 – Requires DMAVA veterans homes to provide payroll-based journal information to the state Long-Term Care Ombudsman, an office that advocates for residents and families.
  • A-5856/S-3909 – Requires director of Division of Veterans Healthcare Services in DMAVA to have prior clinical and long-term care experience.

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