Feds launch investigation into New Jersey veterans homes, seek more info from New York

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The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into New Jersey’s state-run veterans homes, citing a lack of cooperation with an earlier probe as well as concerns over the quality of care at the facilities.

New Jersey officials estimate that 190 residents at veterans homes in Paramus and Menlo Park have died of Covid-19, representing roughly a third of their population at the start of the pandemic. The official tally, according to the state’s Covid-19 data dashboard, remains at 143.

“Recent reports suggest that the number of Covid-19 deaths at some nursing homes, including New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park and New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus … two long-term care facilities operated by the state, have been understated,” according to a letter sent to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy which was released by a Justice Department spokesperson Tuesday evening.

There is “cause for concern that the quality of medical care at these nursing homes has been deficient,” the letter states.

According to the letter, the department has not reached any conclusions and, if appropriate, will offer “technical assistance” on any deficiencies identified in the investigation.

The Justice Department announced its original probe of New Jersey’s handling of outbreaks in long-term care facilities in August. More than 7,200 residents and staff of those facilities who tested positive for the virus have died since March 4, representing around 45 percent of the estimated number of deaths New Jersey has attributed to the pandemic.

Earlier this month, after months of public outcry from veterans groups, New Jersey elected officials and Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Bill Pascrell, Murphy announced a shake-up of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which oversees the Menlo Park and Paramus homes.

The state’s third veterans home, in Vineland, was the site of a much smaller outbreak.

“The fact that this request from the Department of Justice was announced a week before Election Day speaks volumes about the nature of the review,” Murphy’s press office said in a statement late Tuesday. “From the beginning of the pandemic, the State of New Jersey has relied on CDC guidance from the federal government to protect the residents of our veterans homes. We do not comment on the substance of investigative inquiries and will respond through the appropriate channels in due course.”

The federal probe also explored outbreaks in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Separately, the Justice Department has sent a letter to New York health officials requesting information about the number of residents, employees and staff who have tested positive for the virus, as well as data on the number of individuals who died after being transferred to a hospital or any other medical facility.

The department is also requesting that New York provide numbers on how many people who were admitted to private nursing homes after testing positive for Covid-19 at another facility. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come under fire from Republicans for an order that directed nursing homes to accept Covid-19 patients over the objections of the Society for Post-Acute and Long Term Care Medicine.

I think that policy was, unfortunately, one of the things that led to a lot of avoidable harm,” Richard J. Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, told POLITICO earlier this year.

"It should come to no one’s surprise that we learned of this letter from the New York Post, whom [President Donald] Trump’s politicized DOJ gave to them before the state, but it appears DOJ requested data since the beginning of this pandemic while CMS sought numbers only after May 8th,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi in a text message late Tuesday. “They should have figured this out themselves, but there’s an election in a week and this federal government is clearly seeking to deceive and distract any way it can.”

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