The proposal to take the homes out of the purview of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and have a new cabinet-level entity has been publicly floated by Democratic senators since last year. Murphy had promised during his first run for governor to split the agency between military and veterans affairs, although the proposal gained steam due to Covid-19’s effects on the homes.
Murphy made the announcement in a joint statement with Sens. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), Joe Cryan (D-Union), Pat Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and Joe Lagana (D-Bergen).
“After thoughtful discussion, today we are announcing a conceptual agreement to pursue structural reforms to the delivery of veteran services in New Jersey,” the group said in a statement. “As highlighted in both the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation reports, comprehensive reform — from ensuring we have adequately paid staff, to upgrading communication and physical infrastructure, to instilling a thorough understanding of best practices — is necessary.”
Over 200 residents and staff died at the three state-run veterans homes due to Covid-19 — with the largest death tolls at the homes in Paramus and Menlo Park — although federal investigators have said the death toll is much higher. The scathing DOJ report said that the veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus were ill-equipped at the start of the pandemic, even relative to their peers in long-term care. Poor infection control practices and lackluster medical care contributed to the high death toll and continue today, the DOJ found.
The new cabinet-level agency will oversee more than just veterans homes. In an interview, Vitale — who has played a key role in the proposed overhaul — said it will encompass “all the services veterans are entitled to once they leave the military” including the homes.
Vitale also said the proposal will not be finished by the end of the so-called lame duck session, the period after the November election and before the start of a new legislative session, where some legislation traditionally moves quickly.
“It would be dishonest to say we could build a new department, detail resources and vision in two months,” he said.
Nothing will be privatized as part of the agreement, Vitale added.
The agreement between the governor’s office and lawmakers would also create a new “veterans advocate” position to investigate complaints. The veterans homes currently have a patient advocate as well as the long-term care ombudsman who oversees all licenses long-term care facilities.
Vitale compared the bifurcation of the veterans homes from DMAVA to splitting child welfare services from the New Jersey Department of Human Services, which happened in the early 2000s after the state’s child welfare program faced scandals.
“You take out what is a vexing problem without a current solution and move it to a new palace where it gets the attention it deserves and eventually DCF is now … a national model,” he said. “Where in the early days [DCF was] a disgrace.”
The state has paid approximately $68 million to families who lost loved ones at the veterans homes during the pandemic. The state did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlements.
Rich McGrath, a spokesperson for Senate President Nick Scutari, said in an email that Scutari “supports their efforts and commends their progress towards effective reforms” when asked if the Senate leader supported the agreement from the governor’s office on moving the veterans homes out of DMAVA.
A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.