A $500,000 remediation project has been launched at the Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park to address the apparent growth of mold behind the walls of the state-operated nursing home.

A $500,000 remediation project has been launched at the Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park to address the apparent growth of mold behind the walls of the state-operated nursing home. (Ed Murray,

(Tribune News Service) — Widely criticized for failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that killed 200 inside the state’s three nursing homes for veterans, the Murphy administration on Wednesday outlined its plans to spend millions of dollars in improvements and create a new agency focused on veterans’ health.

“I have said many times: the more eyes on our veterans homes, the better. I mean that. We have been scrutinized more than any of the other long-term care facilities in New Jersey,” Maj. General Lisa Hou, the commissioner for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs told the state Assembly Budget Committee in Trenton.

Under the glare of that scrutiny, however, the veterans homes in Edison Paramus and Vineland have met inspection standards over the last two years, Hou said.

“New Jersey is not only moving decisively to improve our veterans homes. We are investing more than we ever have to support service members, veterans, and their families,” she said during an hour-long hearing on Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed $262.8 million department’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Budget committee members reminded Hou of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation that concluded “the state failed to implement adequate infection control protocols, provide adequate clinical care, and “provide oversight of the facilities in a manner that keeps the residents of the Veterans Homes safe from harm,” according to a report issued in September.

“One worker described the situation (during the height of the pandemic) in Paramus as ‘pure hell,’” the report noted. “Another described Menlo Park as ‘a battlefield.’”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees long-term care facilities, fined New Jersey $340,000 for the numerous health and safety violations at Menlo Park $340,000. The state appealed, and in February paid the slightly reduced fine of $289,242 in February, according to an analysis of the department’s budget by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

The state also paid $24,643 in fines for violations at the Paramus and Vineland veterans’ homes, the analysis said.

Hou, whom Murphy appointed to replace Brigadier General Jemal J. Beale in October 2020 after the deadly first wave, pointed out the Department of Justice’s report focused on the Paramus and Menlo Park performance from 2020-22. It “does not reflect the positive inspections” since that time,” she said. “We believe we are doing better.”

Behind the scenes, the department, Gov. Phil Murphy’s office and legislators are working with McKInsey & Co. to draft legislation that would split the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs into two agencies — one new devoted to veterans and the other to the active military. Sen. Joseph Vitale, D- Middlesex, who plans to co-sponsor legislation to create the new agencies, has said the legislation will be ready for introduction later in the spring.

Here’s what the Murphy Administration has spent or suggests spending on the veterans’ homes:

•$21 million to convert dual-occupancy rooms to single rooms to prevent the spread of infection. (The federal government will pay $49 million to complete the $60 million job).

•$1.4 million to buy new beds and mattresses at the veterans homes, each of which will serve no more than 200 veterans and their spouses.

•$1.3 million has been spent to remove mold at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, which officials initially denied was mold and described as a “discoloration.”

•Although an overall price tag was not immediately available, 333 direct care workers have received promotions and wage increases ranging from 4.6% to 29.2%, with an average increase of 9.6%, according to department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Agneta Murnan.

“These increases are game changers,” Hou testified. “For decades, our Veterans homes were unable to compete with the private sector for top-tier talent. Today and going forward, we can do just that.”

•$600,000 to buy medical equipment.

The department has also implemented an electronic medical records systems for all three veterans homes and “introduced a learning management system” to provide staff with “thousands of hours of training and continuing education,” Hou said.

A recent 910-page report analyzing how the Murphy administration handled the pandemic acknowledged the “substantial reforms have been made to Veterans’ Homes in New Jersey, with additional changes being implemented. But the authors criticized the “wholly inadequate infection controls” at Menlo Park and Paramus and singled out the Menlo Park CEO for “advis(ing) staff not to wear masks, contradicting prevailing expert opinions.

Accused in lawsuits of gross negligence and incompetence over its handling of the outbreak, the state paid nearly $53 million in 2021 to the families of 119 residents whose deaths were attributed to the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic. A second $15.9 million settlement was reached in August 2022, resolving the claims of an additional 71 families.

NJ Advance Media Staff Writer Ted Sherman contributed to this report.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now