New Jersey leaders agree with U.S. that veterans homes need to be fixed, but how isn't clear

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's leaders appear to agree with Justice Department findings that state-run veterans homes failed residents during COVID-19 and continue to violate their constitutional rights, but there's little clarity on how exactly they'll address the issues.

The Democrat-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy gave the strongest indications yet that they'll be addressing the problems highlighted in the report.

Justice Department investigators on Thursday detailed what one veterans home worker in Paramus called “pure hell,” and another at the Menlo Park facility termed a “battlefield,” according to the report.

Among the findings were that the facilities didn't properly cohort residents, resulting in the mixing of people sick with COVID-19 with those who weren't. The homes also didn't properly train staff or use masks correctly, the document said. It also determined that the count of people who died from the outbreak was almost certainly higher than initially reported because of a lack of testing.

The report's publication comes as lawmakers are by and large in recess after passing a more than $54 billion budget in June, and ahead of legislative elections this fall.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said he thinks “all options for comprehensive change” should be on the table to prevent further failures as described in the report. Senate President Nicholas Scutari said its findings “will undoubtedly require us to take further action.”

Some lawmakers have put forward ideas for addressing the issues.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale wants to strip responsibility for the veterans facilities from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and put it into a new Cabinet-level authority. That tracks roughly with what advocates for families of residents have suggested is the problem: Nursing homes being run through a military department instead of a health department.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Cryan said he agrees and that legislation creating a new department is needed.

Murphy hasn't indicated what path he supports. He had promised a comprehensive review of how his administration handled COVID-19, but that's not expected to be out until later this year. He didn't take questions Friday at an event naming Tahesha Way as the new lieutenant governor.

“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,” he said Thursday.

Even before the report's release, signs of trouble at the homes had been stirring. In 2021, the Murphy administration reached a $53 million settlement with more than 100 residents at the homes. And in October 2020 federal investigators questioned the Murphy administration's nursing home death count and announced it was launching a formal investigation of the state’s veterans homes.

Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, want Murphy to be held accountable for the failures outlined in the report.

“Our most vulnerable residents cannot survive this administration’s long-overdue Covid investigation, apathy and inaction,” Republican Assembly Leader John DiMaio said.

The Justice Department report said officials there “look forward” to working with the state to remedy the failures they uncovered.

It also notes that, within 49 days, the U.S. attorney general could file a lawsuit aimed at correcting the deficiencies they uncovered if the state hasn't addressed concerns.