Gov. Phil Murphy announced Nov. 22 his administration is sending a Mission Critical Team to the Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park to offer its expertise as the beleaguered state-run facility continues to come under fire for a number of failures.
The move follows a scathing report filed by inspectors that led to a Tuesday deadline to correct the problems or risk being stripped of federal funding by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which would likely result in the closing of the facility.
The Menlo Park location was among the hardest-hit veterans homes during the onset of COVID-19, along with Paramus, with more than 200 residents dying at those facilities throughout the pandemic.
There have been recently reported outbreaks as well, in addition to the stern warnings from the federal government.
Murphy’s office says two members of the three-person team arrived onsite this week to begin assessing the situation. The group, which works within the state Department of Health’s Office of Long-Term Care Resiliency, is comprised of an experienced administrator, a nurse consultant and an infection preventionist.
The team’s stated goal is to collaborate with facility leaders and staff to improve quality of care through mentoring, coaching, and sharing of operational and clinical best practices.
“While my administration has taken important steps to improve the performance and strengthen the resiliency of our veterans memorial homes over the past few years, it is clear our work is not done,” said Murphy. “The Department of Health’s inspection of the Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park has given us crucial insight into the challenges currently facing this facility. We must, and will, hold state-owned facilities to the same standards as we hold privately-owned long-term care facilities. It is our solemn duty as a state to protect the health and well-being of the veterans in our care – the very veterans who once put their lives on the line to protect this nation.”
‘Another tool in the toolbox’
The team is expected to spend a minimum of one month at the facility, reviewing all processes and embedding best practices for improvements. During this period, NJDOH’s Infection Control Assessment & Response (ICAR) team will also be onsite to support resident and health care personnel safety and quality improvement.
“The Department sent this team to collaborate with leaders and staff to improve and sustain the quality of care in the veterans home,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “The team has already begun their assessment and collaboration with onsite staff to make needed improvements.”
The request to send in the team was made by New Jersey Adjutant Gen. Lisa Hou, who says her top priorities are to provide high-quality care to residents, attract and retain qualified staff, and improve infection control in the facilities.
“The mission critical team provides additional expertise during this difficult time,” said Hou. “I requested the team as another tool in the toolbox to continually improve the quality of care for our residents, evaluate our staff processes, and renew our dedication to the veterans in our care.”
She added that the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which she serves as commissioner of, is working continuously to implement numerous changes and initiatives at all three facilities under the state’s watch.
The move announced by Murphy also follows Senate Republicans turning up the heat on the issue.
On Tuesday, they wrote a scathing letter to Senate President Nick Scutari, D-22nd District, calling for a special legislative committee with subpoena power to investigate the “continuing failures at state-run veterans homes.” Senate Republicans noted the dozens of attempts they have made since May 2020 for a bipartisan effort to investigate and identify solutions for the failures, which they say have been ignored by Senate Democrats.
“In addition to ignoring our many requests, we note with dismay that the Majority has actively blocked our efforts to bring resolutions for a vote to form an investigative committee,” the 16 Republican members wrote in the letter. “As a result of the Majority’s repeated refusal to act – either on our proposals or any other – serious problems in our veterans homes remain unresolved.”
They say that the Legislature has done next to nothing to improve protections for veterans home residents — and that it hasn’t worked.
“Therefore, we call on the Majority to join us in supporting the passage of Senate Resolution 32, which would constitute the ‘Senate Select Committee on the Executive Branch’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,'” the Senate Republicans wrote.
Following the letter and Murphy’s announcement, Senate Democrats put out a statement of their own that did not address their Senate counterparts’ call for the special committee.
Instead, the statement noted the efforts of Sens. Joe Vitale, D-19th District; Joe Cryan, D-20th District; Vin Gopal, D-11th District; Joe Lagana, D-38th District; and Patrick Diegnan, D-18th District, who Senate Democrats say have been working together to develop reforms to help correct the problems at the state-run veterans homes.
The group of senators say they welcome the deployment of the team.
“It underscores the need for institutional reforms to improve the quality of care at Menlo Park and the other state-run homes for veterans,” they said. “We look forward to the finding of the team and the health inspectors in order to fully understand the hard lessons that need to be learned from the reoccurring problems that have occurred at Menlo Park and elsewhere. The conditions need to be corrected.”
The senators believe that wholesale, permanent changes are needed.
“We need to work to develop a thoughtful and thorough plan that ensures the best possible care and treatment of the residents, their families, and caregivers,” the Senate Democrats said. “We must live up to the promise that was made to the men and women who served our country with selfless honor. They have earned our gratitude and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”