Two troubled N.J. veterans homes would see mandatory upgrades under new bill

By: - January 24, 2023 6:57 am

Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker said the main goal of the legislation she introduced is to ensure funding is going to veterans homes that struggled when COVID-19 swept through the state. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Two state-run veterans homes that saw a high number of deaths related to COVID-19 would get mandatory upgrades under a new bill advanced in the Legislature’s lower chamber Monday.

The bill (A4923) would require the state veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus to convert at least one ward each to single occupancy rooms. Those rooms would be required to be equipped with ventilation systems that would prevent the spread of harmful airborne particles, and both homes would need to upgrade their heating and ventilation systems.

Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), prime sponsor of the bill, said during a hearing of the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee that the main goal of the legislation is to ensure the upgrades will be funded. The measure calls for federal funds to be allocated to complete the conversions and upgrades, with state funds used if federal funding is not sufficient.

“I know as time goes on, years go on, standards change, and we have to make sure that these two nursing homes get a chance to have the proper opportunity to bring their facilities up to the standard that is required,” said Tucker, the committee’s chair.

COVID-19 devastated the two nursing homes, which saw 200 deaths of residents and staff members and more than 400 infections as the virus initially swept through the state. Since then, a report from state health inspectors reported episodes of improper care and abuse in Menlo Park, the federal government halted admissions to Menlo Park and threatened to cut off funding, and Gov. Phil Murphy announced his administration would outsource management of the Paramus, Menlo Park, and Vineland veterans homes to a private vendor.

The Murphy administration has faced criticism over how it managed COVID-19 outbreaks at veterans homes and nursing homes across the state. According to NorthJersey.com, a November 2021 outbreak in the Menlo Park facility led to 17 deaths and hundreds of infections, while a federal inspection found employees of the Paramus facility allowed COVID-positive residents to mingle with those who were not testing positive.

Robert McNulty of the Vietnam Veterans of America criticized the bill as a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19, pointing to its exclusion of the nursing home in Vineland and noting that extended construction could close off wings in the homes, limiting how many people can be admitted. Adding an additional wing would be preferred, he said, because that would lead to fewer disruptions for residents.

“We need to do it systemwide across all three homes, and we want to do it in a fashion that we’re not here five years from now still waiting to raise a hammer. There’s no guarantee in this bill that any of that’s going to occur,” said McNulty.

Tucker said the Vineland home isn’t included because it’s in “much better shape than the other two facilities.”

Luddie Austin of the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars said the pandemic exposed problems that veterans were experiencing in the places they call home. Austin praised the bill as a call to action and stressed a sense of urgency in helping the struggling homes.

“They have that right to live comfortably, and by adding these extra expansions in these two homes, and later down the line we see that it’s working, then we build another memorial home in the state of New Jersey,” he said. “But this bill is crucial to help out veterans who are currently living in those two facilities.”

Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean) echoed some of McNulty’s testimony, including his concerns over excluding Vineland and the potential loss of beds.

“We need more beds at these homes. We need more homes in general,” he said.

The bill unanimously advanced, with Sauickie agreeing to vote for it on the floor of the Assembly if language is updated to include more funding. A Senate companion bill was introduced last week in the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which does not have a future meeting schedule.

 

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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