During budget hearings in Trenton this week, Murphy Administration officials answer’s about the their response to the coronavirus pandemic led to confirming a previously unknown third investigation into the operations of New Jersey Veterans Homes.
Adjutant General Lisa Hou, who heads the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee April 26 that her department is cooperating with the state Commission of Investigation as they probe the actions that claimed the lives of more than 200 residents combined at the Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park and the Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus.
A U.S. Department of Justice investigation is looking at possible violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, raising questions over whether the number of deaths in the veterans homes had been understated, and whether the state should not have ordered nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for COVID-19 in a hospital.
Two State Investigations
The Commission of Investigation inquiry is the second state entity looking into the department’s actions. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office is investigating how New Jersey’s long-term care facilities—which include the veterans homes—responded to the pandemic.
Hou said her department was cooperating with all three ongoing individual examinations and expects the findings will be made public but did not know when.
Hou’s testimony came a day after New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli appearance before the Assembly Budget Committee that was dominated by questions about the department’s actions to combat the spread of the virus.
GOP lawmakers in both committee hearings focused on the policies on returning long-term care residents to their facilities, why a promised review of the Murphy’s decision has not been undertaken and if health protocols were effective.
Republicans have pressed since Summer 2020 for a select committee to investigate what they believe are the mistakes the Murphy’s Administration made, specifically the high death toll in nursing homes and a lockdown they see as going too far that caused economic damage to small businesses as well as learning loss.
Persichilli defended her department’s decisions during the pandemic and its oversight of long-term care centers that has recorded about 8,500 COVID-related deaths in the last two years.
Part of the administration’s defense has been the implementation of the Manatt Health from June 2020 that detailed how nursing homes were severely understaffed and underprepared, resulting in what they see as major reforms.
Beyond those reforms, Persichilli is requesting $500,000 in the next budget for a mission-critical team that includes infection control prevention experts and educators to report to a long-term care centers before they go into crisis mode.
Answering a question from Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-21) on what officials have learned since the pandemic started, Persichilli said priorities moving forward include making sure local health departments are properly staffed and having the physical government infrastructure to respond to a pandemic among others lesson to take going forward.
The commissioner believes the state has the tools—including vaccines, therapeutics as well as protocols such as wearing a mask and consistently washing of hands—now to fight the virus that allows residents to return to their normal routines.
“As we look back on March and April (2020), hopefully we’ll never, ever repeat that. And as we go forward, we learn more about the virus—that is still an unreliable foe, there’s no getting away from it—and how we handle surges will be much different because of vaccination,” she said.
Another lesson learned, Persichilli said, is that “one size does not fit all,” and future decisions should be made regionally, separating North, Central, and South Jersey.
But Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24) took a larger view of the government’s actions, terming the lockdowns as “draconian,” questioning if the use of masks makes any difference and wondering why about the need for vaccine mandates of healthcare workers and correctional officers.
Pressed by Wirths
“To allow a government entity to lock us down like that is unforgivable. But I want to see if you think it was worth those two years of locking down,” he said. “Would you do that again? Would you put the folks of New Jersey what we went through the last two years?”
Persichilli defended the decisions as part of the department’s mission to have “New Jerseyans live long happy lives and reach their greatest potential. We will make decisions at the time that will hopefully promote that.”
But for what she called the “elephant in the room,” Persichilli detailed actions as related to long-term care facilities during the pandemic. The state has conducted 5,211 inspections from March 2020 to March 2022, with more than 1,600 of these triggered by complaints. Long-term care facilities were hit with $12.1 million in fines, with the majority levied by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and $250,000 by the state health department.
What to do With Woodland
Wirths, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, peppered the commissioner with questions centered around efforts to improve care at Sussex County’s Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center, formerly known as Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center. The facility was forced into the spotlight after the staff had to store bodies of residents in an outdoor shed due to being overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths in April 2020.
After federal officials recently threatened to withhold funding from Woodland after inspectors found numerous deficiencies, Atlantic Health System moved in to work with the facility to address these concerns.
Persichilli explained that solutions are challenging at long-term care facilities as that is the place residents call home.
“Cutting off funding makes it worse. If there is a closure scenario, where do those individuals go once uprooted from their homes? Mission critical team should get in there before that occurs,” she said. “Once we are in reactive mode, it’s difficult to change the trajectory, as we are trying to do with Woodlands…It’s a difficult journey.”