Nursing home deaths: NJ lawmakers approve reforms but not investigation
TRENTON — Nine bills that would affect long-term care facilities in New Jersey, which are connected to half of the confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state, were approved Thursday by the Senate or Assembly, including four now on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.
They include a state emergency operations center, raises for certified nursing assistants and staffing requirements and a task force to consider future changes. The bills derived from an investigation the Murphy administration commissioned that was done by Manatt Health.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said the legislation is needed to ensure long-term care facilities are better prepared for outbreaks – an upgrade that officials thought they had directed through laws put in place after a 2018 viral outbreak at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
“Clearly somewhere along the line, there is failure. And I believe that needlessly, more people died than needed to during this pandemic,” Vitale said.
Vitale said clearly some nursing home residents would have died due to COVID-19 regardless – but that the toll in nursing homes now exceeding 7,070 clearly deserves a response.
“The amount that passed in our long-term care facilities and nursing homes and in our veterans’ homes in my view is unacceptable. And there ought to be accountability,” he said.
State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said the Legislature should further investigate why so many died from coronavirus in New Jersey nursing homes and that the U.S. Department of Justice is now asking similar questions.
“Moments of silence is great, but we can honor those that died by having a special select committee with subpoena powers,” Pennacchio said.
Democrats blocked a vote on his attempt to force the Senate to take up such a bill.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, said New Jersey was the coronavirus epicenter in the United States in the spring and that long-term care facilities bore the brunt.
“COVID-19 truly has exposed the gaping holes in our state’s long-term care infrastructure, and this legislation is a critical component in filling in those cracks.”
Most of the bills advanced with widespread support. The biggest exception was one paying certified nursing assistants $3 more an hour, which Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, said will lead to a shortage of home health aides.
It also requires facilities to spend 90% of their funds on direct patient care.
“The experts have said it’s mathematically impossible to do it,” Bergen said. “So not only is it not possible, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s not right. This is a government overreach into private business.”
Only about one-third of the package of bills made it to Murphy Thursday. Another third passed the Senate but not the Assembly, and the other third is still stuck in committees.
The following bills were approved and sent to Murphy:
- S2758/A4482: Establish minimum wage requirements for certain long-term care facility staff, establish a direct care ratio requirement for nursing homes and require DHS to conduct a nursing home care rate study.
- S2787/A4481: Establish New Jersey Task Force on Long-Term Care Quality and Safety, which would develop recommendations to drive improvements in person-centered care, resident and staff safety, quality of care and services, workforce engagement and sustainability and any other appropriate aspects of the long-term system of care in New Jersey.
- S2790/A4476: Establish certain requirements concerning the state’s preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics affecting long-term care facilities. The bill would establish the Long-Term Care Emergency Operations Center in the Department of Health, which would serve as the centralized command for long-term care facility response efforts and communications during declared public health emergencies.
- S2813/A4547: Establish a temporary rate adjustment for nursing facilities to support wage increases and to cover costs related to COVID-19 preparedness. The bill would make a one-time appropriation of $62.3 million from the General Fund to the Department of Human Services for the purpose of implementing the bill.
The Senate also passed the following bills:
- S537: Establish certain minimum and maximum temperatures in emergency shelters, rooming and boarding houses, and certain nursing homes and residential health care facilities.
- S2785: Require long-term care facilities to adopt and implement written policies, provide for the practical availability of technology to facility residents and ensure that appropriate staff and other capabilities are in place, to prevent the social isolation of facility residents.
- S2786: Allow per diem health care workers working within long-term care facilities to accrue paid sick leave.
- S2788: Provide supplemental payments to long-term care facility staff providing direct care services during COVID-19 pandemic.
- S2798: Establish uniform requirements on the submission of outbreak response plans to DOH by long-term care facilities.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.