There are three state-run, long-term-care nursing homes for veterans in New Jersey, located in Paramus, Vineland and Menlo Park. A scathing report released by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in September found severe neglect in the care provided in Menlo Park and Paramus that resulted in more than 170 residents dying after contracting Covid-19.
Poor communication, inadequate systems and infection controls, and staff incompetence led to the virus spreading “virtually unchecked throughout the facilities,” according to the report. It also found that employees were not properly using personal protective equipment (PPE), and that infected and uninfected people were not being separated.
Simply put, it should not have taken an official report from the DOJ for New Jersey’s government leaders to acknowledge that our state was violating the constitutional rights of our veterans. In many ways, this isn’t a new issue, but Covid just exacerbated it.
I recently spoke with State Senator Joseph Cryan (D-Union Township), chair of the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who told me, “We failed our veterans. Period,” adding, “That is a collective failure on the state government of New Jersey. …And when you fail, you fix, and that is what we need to do.”
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Let’s be clear. Since my initial conversation with Cryan, there has been a “conceptual agreement” between the Murphy administration and key legislative leaders to make change by creating a separate department to deal with the treatment of veterans in nursing homes. Currently, according to Cryan, much of the failure falls under the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA). Says Cryan, “What we are doing to propose change is that the folks that run DMAVA are out, and put professionals in charge of the nursing homes.”
It is positive that the administration of Governor Phil Murphy says it is committed to creating a cabinet-level post and has not pushed back on any aspect of the DOJ report. But the question cries out to be asked: How is it possible that, given all our rhetoric about appreciating the service of our veterans the situation got this bad in the first place? It’s as if the words, Thank you for your service, suffice. Not even close. Veterans in New Jersey’s nursing homes did their part. They served. They protected. They did what many of us didn’t choose to do or, in some cases, avoided at all costs.
I find it hard to believe that, before the Department of Justice report blasted this pathetic failure of state government, nobody knew what was going on. Did we really need the federal government to tell us what should have been crystal clear to any state official who truly cared about our veterans?
Senator Cryan, and his colleague Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), who heads up the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee, are working hard to implement change. The governor and his administration say they are committed to making change as well.
But here’s the catch. When government reports or investigations are published, politicians often scramble to say the right things and make it appear that they are being responsive. I want to give our state officials the benefit of the doubt here. However, talk is cheap and words are easy. Action is a lot harder. But it is action with a sense of urgency that is required. The clock is ticking, and it is ticking fast, particularly for our older veterans who deserve so much better from the rest of us.
Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of six books, including his newest, Lessons in Leadership 2.0: The Tough Stuff. He is an Emmy Award–winning anchor with programs airing on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. He has also appeared on CNN, CBS News and NBC’s Today show. Steve Adubato’s Lessons in Leadership video podcast, with cohost Mary Gamba, airs Sundays at 10 am on News 12+. For more information, visit stand-deliver.com.