New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says he's outsourcing management of the state's troubled veterans homes — including one where federal officials are threatening to cut off funding permanently — because it's become clear the state needs help.
"Enough already," he said Wednesday night on WNYC's "Ask Governor Murphy" call-in show. "These folks deserve the very best, and that's what we're committed to giving them."
New Jersey's veterans and nursing homes saw some of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the nation in 2020, and during the call-in show, Murphy sought to emphasize improvements since then — saying the COVID situation had "stabilized," and that "the loss of life and sickness, those curves had begun to bend meaningfully in the right direction."
Hours before his appearance on "Ask Governor Murphy," the governor ordered the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to issue a formal request for proposals, seeking a vendor who could immediately take over the Veteran’s Memorial Home at Menlo Park home as its interim CEO, and find a replacement for the position. The vendor would also provide a new chief nursing officer.
The vendor would "manage systemic changes and provide qualified, administrative staff to help lead" changes at New Jersey's three veterans homes, the Murphy administration said in an announcement of the order. The other two homes are in Paramus and Vineland, but Menlo Park is slated to see reforms first.
Murphy said the state would "get a world-class company that does nothing but this to come in and serve our veterans at the level they deserve to be served."
"Details still to come," he added.
He also pledged his administration's cooperation with a long-promised "post-mortem" of New Jersey's COVID response that's finally slated to move forward. This week, Murphy hired an outside law firm to conduct a review. He said that review "is going to [include] everything."
"Was the move to shut schools and businesses the right move done at the right time? You know, how do we do with long-term care, including our vets?" Murphy told WBGO news director Doug Doyle, who was filling in as the show's host for WNYC's Nancy Solomon. "How about other masking testing, vaccine protocols? Everything, soup to nuts, and we will cooperate fully, and that includes yours truly."
That review, which will be conducted by a team at law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker and Rhoads, will be led by Paul Zoubek, former first assistant attorney general during two Republican governors' administrations.
But despite Murphy's emphasis Wednesday night on an improving COVID situation, Department of Health inspectors this summer found COVID infection control problems and other issues put residents of the Menlo Park home in “immediate jeopardy," NJ.com reported. The inspectors detailed incidents including one in which a nurse didn't know how to remove a catheter properly, and her patient wound up hospitalized for a urinary tract infection. Staffers failed to do contact tracing to contain a major COVID outbreak, the inspectors said in their report.
"The facility's systemwide failure to immediately conduct COVID-19 testing upon the identification of a single new case of COVID-19 posed a serious and immediate risk to the health and well-being of all staff and residents who resided at the facility and who were placed at risk for contracting a contagious and potentially deadly virus," read the inspectors' report, as described by NorthJersey.com.
The report also cited multiple instances of alleged abuse.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut off federal funding for new admissions to Menlo Park last week. It told NJ.com that as of Tuesday, Menlo Park was still not in "substantial compliance" and could lose Medicaid and Medicare funding permanently by March.
Last week, Murphy also announced he was sending a three-person "mission critical team" of long-term care professionals to Menlo Park, to improve practices there.
New Jersey has agreed to pay nearly $69 million in settlements over COVID deaths at veterans homes. In August, 41 employees at the Menlo Park veterans home filed lawsuits against the state, saying they became ill because of a lack of infection control measures and ill-preparedness.