by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor
Republican lawmakers are calling on the Legislature to end its recess and return to Trenton to address the scathing Department of Justice report that found ongoing problems in two state-run veterans homes.
“This shouldn’t be partisan. It should be something that we take the report for what it is — it told us, independent of anybody in the state of New Jersey, what really went on, and we need to address that. We need to address it for our veterans,” said Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean).
The report, released on Thursday, revealed deficiencies at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Homes at Menlo Park and Paramus throughout the pandemic and accuses the state of violating residents’ constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate medical care. About 200 residents died in state-run veterans homes during the pandemic.
The report details problems federal officials say still exist today, like a lack of fall prevention measures, errors in medication distribution, inadequate wound care, and a “failure to ensure basic medical care competency among staff.” Federal officials also faulted the state for a lack of independent oversight.
“Given the report from the DOJ and how egregiously bad things were and continue to be, I’d love to see a session called to try and address the need for more help,” Sauickie added.
Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) said the Murphy administration needs to be held accountable for the “abhorrent conditions” described by the report.
“To do this, legislators should return to Trenton to form a special legislative committee to investigate the finer details of the DOJ report as well as pass bipartisan legislation to ensure that a situation like this never happens again,” Bucco said in a statement.
Gov. Phil Murphy last week called the report’s findings “deeply disturbing” and said the state is “open to exploring all options to deliver for our veterans the high level of care they deserve and are entitled to under the law.”
Lawmakers have not returned to Trenton since adopting this year’s budget in late June. In election years like this one — all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot in November — they generally do not return to the Statehouse until post-election.
Republicans have this summer called for special sessions to vote on bills targeting a recent state Board of Education revamp of the state’s equity code and requiring school districts to “provide ‘truthful’ information at a parents’ request about their children’s mental and physical health.” That second proposed bill is a response to the state Attorney General’s Office suing school districts that want to require teachers to reveal students’ gender identities and other information to parents.
The findings of the Department of Justice report were loudly condemned by members of both parties. But GOP lawmakers used the report’s release to criticize Democrats for blocking largely Republican efforts to create a special legislative committee to investigate the state’s pandemic policies in nursing homes.
In a statement following the report’s release last week, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said the Legislature “will take whatever steps necessary” to improve care and conditions at state nursing homes. A Coughlin spokeswoman declined to say whether he would seek to reconvene the Assembly before November’s elections.
Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Union), who last week said there will be “an appropriate time to review the state’s entire response,” did not respond to a request for comment.
Sauickie said, as a member of the Assembly Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, he wants to use the report’s findings to fuel support for legislation to improve veterans’ care.
He’s the prime sponsor of a bill (A319) to create the Office of the Inspector General for Veterans’ Facilities. The measure was originally introduced by his predecessor, Assemblyman Ron Dancer, who died in 2022.
The position would be tasked with investigating complaints about policies and practices in veterans facilities, and the person appointed to fill it must have experience as either a prosecutor or investigator, or in the operation of veterans homes.
While the Republican-sponsored bill hasn’t moved in either chamber since it was introduced in January, Sauickie said he’s been rallying support from both sides of the aisle.
”We should all want to support our military and veterans. Now that this report is out, let’s stop pretending that there wasn’t a problem and it can’t be fixed,” he said. “Let’s get together and do something to fix it on both sides.”