Vin Gopal and Joseph Lagana | August 11, 2021 | NorthJersey.com
During the early months of the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents and staff at the Paramus and Menlo Park veterans’ memorial homes suffered death and devastation at a rate higher than most other parts of our state. Indeed, at those two homes alone, 191 residents and two caregivers died due to lax infection controls and other institutional missteps during the spread of a virus that’s been unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
We will always mourn with families who lost loved ones in our veterans’ homes during the worst days of the pandemic. What we can do is begin to codify into our laws policies and protections that will keep our veterans and those who care for them safe going forward, and especially in the event of another public health crisis. As legislators and members of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, we and our colleagues have committed to implementing reforms that will help us stave off such a catastrophic result in the future.
Here it is important to note that these are our veterans. They stepped forward, took the oath and swore to defend this country. We must honor that service and sacrifice as they live out their lives, and make certain these men and women remain safe and secure in our veterans’ homes. With this new package of legislation, we will codify into law reforms to ensure all safety protocols are followed, and that communication and transparency are made a priority as they concern our veterans and their families. Through these bills, also sponsored by state senators Patrick Diegnan, Joe Vitale and Nilsa Cruz-Perez, we look to protect veterans, empower their families and better prepare the state for the next public health crisis that might come along.
Our bipartisan legislation includes practical steps and effective countermeasures that we can rely upon in the face of a public health crisis, including a bill requiring veterans’ home administrators to have prior work experience in a clinical setting and measures that attempt to establish greater communications with families and guardians. Additionally, it also includes bills that are meant to institute a higher level of transparency from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Two bills that we sponsored, in particular, S-3904 and S-3906, are aimed at increasing communication between the homes and the veteran’s guardians during a time of medical emergency, and would require the memorial homes to hold quarterly town hall meetings — either in-person or remotely — with the guardians.
Tragically, and unfortunately, during the height of the COVID crisis, close family members and guardians of veteran residents were too often provided little or incomplete information concerning the health and well-being of their loved ones. This was unacceptable, and brought further grievous injury to families already suffering. In many cases, family members were unable to access even the most basic information about what type of treatment their loved ones were receiving.
Other bills in the package include:
- S-3918, which 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;
- S-3905, which would allow a veteran’s guardian to remove the veteran from the veterans’ memorial home under certain emergency circumstances;
- S-3907, which requires the position of resident advocate at each veterans memorial home.
- S-3908, which would require state veterans facilities to provide payroll-based journal information to the NJ Long-Term Care Ombudsman;
- S-3903, which would require the administrator and the assistant administrator at State veterans’ memorial homes to have prior work experience in a clinical setting;
- S-3909, which would require the Director of Division of Veterans Healthcare Services in the DMVA to have prior clinical and long-term care experience.
In the end, we must do better by our veterans, who have sacrificed for their country, and deserve quality and consistent care in a safe and secure setting, and under the watchful eye of experienced and compassionate professionals.
We appreciate working with Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Speaker Craig Coughlin, Chairwoman Cleopatra Tucker and Chairman Joseph Vitale to collaboratively work on these changes together.
Going forward, we must redouble our efforts to be more attentive to the needs of those who live and work in our veterans memorial homes, and devote additional resources where needed to bolster the care and treatment in these homes, and to support their mission in every way possible.
State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, serves as chair of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee in the New Jersey Senate. State Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen/Passaic, serves on the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.