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Military, Veterans Affairs Committee Clears Bill Package to Better Safeguard Veterans Homes

TRENTON – In response to the heavy death and devastation wrought upon New Jersey’s veterans memorial homes during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an effort to codify reforms surrounding these facilities going forward, the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee released a package of eight bills sponsored Senator Vin Gopal and Senator Joe Lagana, along with Senators Patrick Diegnan, Joe Vitale and Nilsa Cruz-Perez to protect veterans and better prepare the state for the next public emergency health crisis that might come along.

The legislation advancing out of committee this week includes practical reforms and effective countermeasures in the face of such a health crisis, a bill requiring veterans home administrators to have prior work experience in a clinical setting, measures that attempt to establish greater communications with families and guardians, as well as to institute a higher levels of transparency from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

“At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Paramus and Menlo Park veterans’ memorial homes were Ground Zero for death and destruction at the hands of a virus unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Indeed, at those two homes alone, 191 residents and two caregivers died due to lax infection controls and other institutional missteps,” said Senator Gopal, (D-Monmouth), the committee’s chair. “With this package of bills, we will codify into law needed reforms to put in place more safety, communication and transparency in these homes going forward.”

The bills include S-3905 and S-3906, sponsored by Senators Gopal and Lagana, which would increase communication between the homes and the veteran’s guardians during a time of medical emergency, would require the memorial homes to hold quarterly town hall meetings with the guardians;

“During the height of the COVID crisis, close family members and guardians related to veteran residents were provided little or spotty information concerning the health and well-being of their loved ones,” said Senator Lagana (D-Bergen / Passaic). “This is unacceptable, and added insult to injury for these families, who were kept in the dark too long about the health status of these veterans, and were often unable to attain even the most basic information about what type of treatment they were receiving.”

A sister bill, S-3918, sponsored by Senator Lagana, would require the Adjutant General of the DMVA to send weekly reports to the state health commissioner regarding the status of veterans’ home during a public health emergency, thereby allowing for more coordination and planning between the homes and DMVA;

In regard to two other bills sponsored by Senators Gopal and Lagana, S-3906 would allow a veteran’s guardian to remove the veteran from the veterans’ memorial home under certain emergency circumstances; while S-3907, requires the position of resident advocate at each veterans memorial home.

Under the bill, S-3908, sponsored by Senator Cruz-Perez, state veterans facilities would be required to provide payroll-based journal information to the NJ Long-Term Care Ombudsman. This would enable a better assessment of staffing levels at these long-term care facilities, and make sure that quality care is given to these veterans at any given time of the day.

“Given the obvious staffing confusion and deficiencies that became evident during the worst days of the pandemic, a better and more accessible database of staffing records is a long-needed reform that will lead to better health care outcomes and treatment for our veterans, and greater transparency” said Senator Cruz-Perez (D- Camden / Gloucester), the committee vice chair.

Bills S-3903 and S-3909, both sponsored by Senator Diegnan and Senator Vitale put in place practical safeguards to make sure the veterans memorial homes are being operated and managed by people with proper experience. The first bill would require the administrator and the assistant administrator at State veterans’ memorial homes to have prior work experience in a clinical setting; the second would require the Director of Division of Veterans Healthcare Services in the DMVA to have prior clinical and long-term care experience.

“We must do whatever we can to never again see the horrific surge of death and illness at our veterans’ memorial homes, which occurred during the early days of the pandemic,” said Senator Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “We must do better by our veterans, who have sacrificed for their country, and deserve the very best of care we can provide, and the very best leadership to make sure that mandate is carried out.”

“Everyone knew from early in the pandemic that the most vulnerable populations are in nursing homes and veterans’ homes. 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,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex).

The bills were all released from committee by votes of 5-0.