Gottheimer, Pascrell Call for Federal Investigation and Emergency VA Support for Paramus Veterans Home COVID-19 Outbreak

On April 10, 2020, U.S. Representatives Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (NJ-9) urged the VA Inspector General to open an immediate federal investigation into the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, New Jersey (NJVHP) facility and the conditions that have resulted in the deaths of 13 veterans and 29 residents and 17 staff testing positive for COVID-19. Gottheimer and Pascrell also urged VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to take additional measures to protect remaining veterans and residents from COVID-19. 

According to published reports, the rate of infection among and staff members, residents, and deaths caused by the virus could be even higher.

“The unacceptable health crisis at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, New Jersey is threatening the lives of veterans who have bravely served our nation and are some of our most vulnerable residents,” Reps. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (NJ-9) wrote in a letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal. “We respectfully request an immediate federal investigation into this facility, and the conditions that have resulted in the deaths of ten veterans and 23 residents testing positive for COVID-19.”

The New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus is owned, managed, and operated by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (NJ DMVA), and inspected and licensed by the New Jersey Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) jointly. VA State Homes receive a per diem for eligible veterans who are referred there, and, as a result, the facility must comply with federal VA requirements for care.  

The reports about the leadership and the conditions at the Paramus Veterans Home are unsatisfactory. Even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the facility received a two star, or “below average” rating from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the category of health inspection, indicating greater health risks.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Gottheimer and Pascrell wrote, “We urge you to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard deployed to NJVHP to take swift actions to contain the spread of COVID-19, including providing additional personal protective equipment to staff, testing each resident and staff member at NJVHP, sending more health care providers and staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat and care for sick veterans, and consider transferring NJVHP residents to other VA medical facilities for treatment, or transferring residents who have tested negative for COVID-19 to VA Community Living Centers or other assisted living facilities in New Jersey to reduce their risk of exposure.”

The Members noted that a complete investigation and review should include information regarding:

  • The number of veterans and other residents at the NJVHP who have been exposed to the COVID-19;
  • Explanation of how this facility passed its most recent inspection by the VA;
  • Timeline of when VA officials became aware of an outbreak of COVID-19 infections at the NJVHP;
  • Timeline of when officials at the NJ DMVA were made aware of staffing shortages at the facility;
  • Timeline of when relatives of NJVHP residents were made aware of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility;
  • Policies the VA has in place to protect veterans and others from the virus and an outline if such policies were followed;
  • Reported concerns from employees regarding the conditions at the facility;
  • Equipment being provided to the remaining employees needed to protect themselves from being sickened by COVID-19 or spreading COVID-19 to residents and their coworkers;
  • Steps the VA is taking in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the community;
  • How VA hospitals and homes are providing care to veterans diagnosed with COVID-19 to prevent our New Jersey health care system from becoming overwhelmed during this pandemic; and
  • The VA’s actions to contain the spread of COVID-19, including whether the VA has provided additional personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, tested each resident and staff member at NJVHP, deployed additional health care providers and staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to treat and care for sick veterans, and transferred NJVHP residents to other VA medical facilities for treatment, and transferred residents who have tested negative for COVID-19 to VA Community Living Centers or other assisted living facilities in New Jersey to reduce their risk of exposure.

A copy of the letter to the VA Inspector General available HERE, the text of which is provided below.

The Honorable Michael J. Missal
Inspector General
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20420

Dear Inspector General Missal:

The unacceptable health crisis at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, New Jersey (NJVHP) is threatening the lives of veterans who have bravely served our nation and are some of our most vulnerable residents. We respectfully request an immediate federal investigation into this facility, and the conditions that have resulted in the deaths of ten veterans and 23 residents testing positive for COVID-19.[1]According to published reports, the rate of infection among and staff members, residents, and deaths caused by the virus could be even higher.[2]

The New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus is owned, managed, and operated by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (NJ DMVA), and inspected and licensed by the New Jersey Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) jointly. As you know, VA State Homes receive a per diem for eligible veterans who are referred there. As a result, the facility must comply with federal VA requirements for care. 

The reports about the leadership and the conditions at the NJVHP is unsatisfactory. Even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the facility received a two star, or “below average” rating from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the category of health inspection, indicating greater health risks.[3]

We believe that conditions at State Veterans Homes like the NJVHP merit scrutiny because of the many reports of veteran deaths and infections at other veterans’ homes in the state and across the country. For instance, following reports of more than 15 veteran deaths and a high COVID-19 infection rate at the Soldiers’ Home and Chelsea Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the VA was required to provide public health assistance to two nursing homes.

Therefore, we respectfully request that an investigation answer the following questions:

1) How many veterans and other residents at the NJVHP have been exposed to the COVID-19?

2) Please explain how this facility passed its most recent inspection by the VA.

3) When did VA officials become aware of an outbreak of COVID-19 infections at the NJVHP?

4) When were officials at the NJ DMVA made aware of staffing shortages at the facility?

5) When were relatives of NJVHP residents made aware of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility?

6) Please detail what policies the VA has in place to protect veterans and others from the virus. Please outline if such policies were followed.

7) Did employees report concerns with the conditions at the facility? If so, please detail those concerns.

8) With at least 17 employees at NJVHP testing positive for COVID-19, are the remaining employees being provided with the equipment they need to protect themselves from being sickened by COVID-19 or spreading COVID-19 to residents and their coworkers?

A complete review should also detail the steps the VA is taking in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the community. Additionally, it should include how VA hospitals and homes are providing care to veterans diagnosed with COVID-19 to prevent our New Jersey health care system from becoming overwhelmed during this pandemic. It should also cover the VA’s actions to contain the spread of COVID-19, including whether the VA has provided additional personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, tested each resident and staff member at NJVHP, deployed additional health care providers and staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to treat and care for sick veterans, and transferred NJVHP residents to other VA medical facilities for treatment, and transferred residents who have tested negative for COVID-19 to VA Community Living Centers or other assisted living facilities in New Jersey to reduce their risk of exposure.

Thank you very much for your service and your immediate attention to this critical matter to the health and wellbeing of New Jersey’s veterans. Please do not hesitate to contact our offices should you require additional information.

Sincerely,       

                                                                       

Cc:  Sen. Vin Gopal, Chair, New Jersey Senate Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee

Asm. Cleopatra G. Tucker, Chair, New Jersey Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee

Dr. Mark A. Piterski, Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Affairs, NJ Department of Military & Veterans Affairs


[1] NJDMVA, COVID-19 Report #18, April 9, 2020

[2] NorthJersey.com, “Paramus veterans home in crisis mode: 37 people dead in 2 weeks, National Guard deployed,” Lindy Washburn, April 8, 2020, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/coronavirus/2020/04/08/nj-coronavirus-outbreak-paramus-veterans-home-kills-least-10/2971899001/; ABC7NY, “Coronavirus News: Combat medics arrive to care for residents of Paramus Veterans Memorial Home,” April 9, 2020, https://abc7ny.com/veterans-home-residents-dead-paramus-in-new-jersey/6088338/; USA Today, “Coronavirus deaths are rising at Virginia, New Jersey nursing homes: At least 43 residents have died since mid-March,” Doug Stanglin, April 8, 2020,https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/08/coronavirus-death-toll-virginia-nursing-home-soar-33/2971642001/

[3]https://www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare/profile.html#profTab=1&ID=315346&Distn=0.4&loc=07652&lat=40.9541697&lng=-74.0652616

 

A copy of the letter to the Secretary of the VA is available HERE, the text of which is provided below. 

The Honorable Robert Wilkie
Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20420

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We are deeply disturbed and angry about the threat to the health and well-being of the veteran residents in the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus (NJVHP). As we write to you, according to published reports, 37 veterans have died in two weeks, 70 veterans are ill, and 17 staff tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19).[1] We are believe that immediate actions must be taken to limit the spread of COVID-19 and prevent more veterans at the facility from becoming ill or dying.

Today, we are requesting that the VA Inspector General conduct an independent investigation and issue a report on the conditions at the facility and status of veteran residents at the NJVHP. Pending the outcome and recommendations of that investigation, we urge you to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard deployed to NJVHP to take swift actions to contain the spread of COVID-19, including providing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, testing each resident and staff member at NJVHP, sending more health care providers and staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to treat and care for sick veterans, and consider transferring NJVHP residents to other VA medical facilities for treatment, or transferring residents who have tested negative for COVID-19 to VA Community Living Centers or other assisted living facilities in New Jersey to reduce their risk of exposure.

Following the reports of over 15 veteran deaths and a high COVID-19 infection rate at the Soldiers’ Home and Chelsea Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the VA provided public health assistance to two nursing homes. We urge you to take the same actions in New Jersey to assist NJVHP residents as they are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19. The National Guard combat medics and staff at NJVHP need the expertise and specialty care from VA providers to treat the veteran residents and prevent further spread of COVID-19. We also appreciate the VA Medical Center in East Orange, New Jersey making intensive care units (ICU) and acute care beds available to non-veteran patients in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the community and the VA providers providing care to veterans and patients diagnosed with COVID-19 to prevent our New Jersey health care system from becoming overwhelmed during this pandemic.

We are fully aware of the severe shortage of medical supply and personal protective equipment in New Jersey and across the country, including at VA facilities. We nonetheless implore you to work with the White House Coronavirus Task Force to swiftly obtain more medical supplies, personal protective equipment, and resources for the providers and staff at VA medical facilities and New Jersey veterans homes including NJVHP. Given that at least 17 employees at NJVHP tested positive for COVID-19 according to the New Jersey Department of Health, we believe that the remaining employees must have the equipment they need to protect themselves from being sickened by COVID-19 or spreading COVID-19 to residents, and their coworkers.

Thank you very much for your immediate attention. Please let us know if there is anything else our offices can provide.

Sincerely,       


[1]NorthJersey.com, “Paramus veterans home in crisis mode: 37 people dead in 2 weeks, National Guard deployed,” Lindy Washburn, April 8, 2020, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/coronavirus/2020/04/08/nj-coronavirus-outbreak-paramus-veterans-home-kills-least-10/2971899001/; ABC7NY, “Coronavirus News: Combat medics arrive to care for residents of Paramus Veterans Memorial Home,” April 9, 2020, https://abc7ny.com/veterans-home-residents-dead-paramus-in-new-jersey/6088338/; USA Today, “Coronavirus deaths are rising at Virginia, New Jersey nursing homes: At least 43 residents have died since mid-March,” Doug Stanglin, April 8, 2020,https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/08/coronavirus-death-toll-virginia-nursing-home-soar-33/2971642001/

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