In a scathing 43-page report released Thursday, the Justice Department announced the findings of a nearly three-year investigation into two troubled, state-run veterans homes in New Jersey, concluding that the state subjected residents at the Menlo Park and Paramus locations to conditions that violated the 14th Amendment.
DOJ says that these veterans face unreasonable harm and risk due to inadequate infection control practices and inadequate medical care – pointing to a lack of effective management and oversight. The Justice Department says, as well, that the deficiencies expose residents to uncontrolled, serious and deadly infections that have resulted in the facilities suffering among the highest number of resident deaths of all similarly sized facilities in the region.
“The United States Department of Justice finds reasonable cause to believe that the State of New Jersey has systematically violated the 14th Amendment rights of the residents of the Veterans Memorial Homes at Menlo Park and Paramus, two state-run nursing facilities for veterans and their families,” DOJ wrote in the report. “Those violations continue.”
The veterans’ homes, which are operated by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, were at the epicenter of the COVID crisis here in New Jersey when more than 200 residents died. During that time period, the governor’s office came under fire for a number of directives and policies regarding the facilities.
“The Coronavirus disease (COVID) outbreak in March and April of 2020 devastated the Veterans Memorial Homes at Menlo Park and Paramus. One worker described the situation in Paramus as ‘pure hell.’ Another described Menlo Park as a ‘battlefield,’” the DOJ report says.
“Even by the standards of the pandemic’s difficult early days, the facilities were unprepared to keep their residents safe,” according to the report. “A systemic inability to implement clinical care policy, poor communication between management and staff, and a failure to ensure basic staff competency let the virus spread virtually unchecked throughout the facilities.
“During the first wave of the pandemic, the veterans’ homes had the first and fourth highest number of publicly reported resident COVID deaths of all long-term care facilities in the State of New Jersey,” the report continued. “As discussed below, the actual number of COVID deaths was likely much higher.”
In a press release announcing the findings, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Philip Sellinger said that those who served to protect this nation and their families are entitled to appropriate care when they reside at a veterans’ home.
“The Paramus and Menlo Park veterans’ homes fail to provide the care required by the U.S. Constitution and subject their residents to unacceptable conditions, including inadequate infection control and deficient medical care,” said Sellinger. “These conditions must swiftly be addressed to ensure that our veterans and their families at these facilities receive the care they so richly deserve. We will not stop working until they do.”
“Based on our investigation, we have found that these facilities have provided inadequate protection from infections and deficient medical care, which have caused these veterans and their families great harm,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
More work to do
In a statement, Murphy said the report is a deeply disturbing reminder that the treatment received by “our heroic veterans is unacceptable and, quite frankly, appalling.”
“In an effort to provide our veterans with the care they deserve, over the past three years, our administration has instituted numerous processes and procedures to improve conditions, including most recently securing private management and assistance for these two homes,” said Murphy. “However, it is clear that we have significantly more work to do, and we are open to exploring all options to deliver for our veterans the high level of care they deserve and are entitled to under the law. We commend the Legislature for their partnership to help us improve conditions, and we will continue to work together in any capacity to provide world-class care and services to our heroes and support to those who care for them.”
Last November, Murphy announced the launch of a long-awaited independent review into the state’s handling of the pandemic, which is being led by Paul Zoubek of Philadelphia law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP in conjunction with Boston Consulting Group.
The governor’s office had anticipated that review to be released in late 2023 with recommendations for enhancements and reforms.
Senate President Nick Scutari, D-22nd District, said that Thursday’s sobering report confirms what many vets and their families already knew about the serious violations and management failures that put so many of the most vulnerable at risk during the pandemic.
“This was an unacceptable way to treat our veterans or anyone in need of care, especially from a trusted source. Many of the failures that are itemized in this report are jarring and will undoubtedly require us to take further action to ensure the State of New Jersey performs to the level our residents deserve,” said Scutari. “The COVID-19 crisis might be over, but the virus remains with us and we must take the steps necessary to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”
“Our state has no greater duty than to provide the best possible care for veterans. The report today highlights failures to provide that care that are unacceptable,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D- 19th District. “The Legislature will take whatever steps necessary to ensure improved care and conditions for New Jersey veterans. All options for comprehensive change are on the table to guarantee this never happens again.”
Republican lawmakers – who have long been critical of Murphy’s pandemic-related decisions, especially about the conditions at the veterans’ homes – immediately called for more answers and accountability.
“This administration failed our veterans. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of our heroes have died due to inadequate medical care and a lack of effective management and oversight,” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-26th District. “After three years of inaction from Democrats in the Legislature stonewalling calls for a comprehensive investigation, it is now time to hold this administration accountable for the harm done to veterans and nursing home residents.”
“The DOJ’s report will be a permanent stain on this administration and revealed what we long knew to be true – that Gov. Murphy violated the U.S. Constitution by sweeping the suffering of veterans under the rug. Unfortunately, his administration’s egregious failures have continued to bring harm to these heroes. Murphy must take accountability and immediately address the conditions at Menlo Park and Paramus,” said Assembly Republican Leader, John DiMaio, R-23rd District. “Lives are at stake.”
As required by the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), under which the investigation was conducted, the Justice Department provided the state with its conclusions and supporting facts as well as notified it of the minimal remedial measures necessary to address the alleged violations.
“We look forward to working with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to improve the conditions in these homes they operate and ensure these veterans and their families receive the care they need and deserve,” Clarke added.
The full report can be found here.