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State agency probing why 200 died in NJ veterans homes during pandemic, top official reveals

Veterans Day Candlelight Vigil held in Edison. Family members who lost loved ones during the pandemic that decimated the veterans home in Menlo Park attended the service. (Patti Sapone/

There are separate investigations examining the missteps and possible civil rights violations that occurred at two of the state-run veteran’s nursing homes during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, including one that had not been disclosed until Tuesday, led by the state Commission of Investigation.

Adjutant General Lisa Hou revealed the additional probe during questioning by members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton.

Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, asked Hou whether Gov. Phil Murphy should hire an independent authority to investigate how the pandemic claimed the lives of more than 200 residents at the Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park and the Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus. Testa noted that the governor and the Legislature had yet to follow through and perform a public assessment of what went wrong in the veterans homes and other nursing facilities, where about 8,600 people have died.

Hou replied that her department was cooperating with the three ongoing individual examinations. She said she expects the findings will be made public.

“I believe we will get the answers we are looking for,” Hou said.

“To put it simply, we deserve to know how this disaster occurred and who made these decision,” Testa said. “Our nation’s heroes should never been put in harm’s way.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation — begun under the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration — is looking at possible violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

Specifically, the Justice Department has raised questions over whether the number of deaths in the veterans homes had been understated, and whether the state should not have ordered nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for COVID-19 in a hospital.

The state Attorney General’s Office also is investigating how New Jersey’s long-term care facilities — which include the veterans homes — responded to the pandemic.

Hou said she did not know when the investigations would be completed.

As the coronavirus swept through the buildings, prompting the state to send in emergency assistance from the Veterans Administration and the National Guard. Early on, frontline workers were discouraged and even chastised for frightening residents by wearing masks. Residents who had tested positive with the deadly virus were not properly segregated from uninfected people and were permitted to mingle in common areas, according to lawsuits and residents’ accounts.

In December, the Murphy administration settled a lawsuit filed by 119 families who had accused the state of gross negligence and incompetence over its handling of the COVID outbreak in the veterans homes, by paying nearly $53 million.

Asked whether more lawsuit were anticipated, Hou said she believed so.

“We all have to make sure what happened in the veterans homes, what happened in nursing homes and hospitals, that it never happens again. “We are not here to criticize but we have to answer to constituents, as well,” Sarlo said.

The State Commission of Investigation — also known as the SCI — is a 54-year-old independent authority that has led 120 investigations into areas such as organized crime, gang crime and corruption in the bail bond and used car industries.


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