Frankly Speaking: Our Veterans and the Elderly Were Ignored and Left to Die

April 27, 2020

Our 5th Congressional district is the proud home to one of New Jersey’s three VA retirement homes for military veterans. The New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus (NJVHP) is where the bravest members of our community reside, and where we trust they will be given the care they deserve after sacrificing so much for our country.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that 49 of these residents, workers and veterans have recently passed away as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and it’s borderline criminal when analyzing both the infection and mortality rates for that facility and for similar long term care (LTC) facilities. For some perspective, New Jersey’s COVID-19 mortality rate is approximately 2.5%. However, the mortality rate at The NJVHP is over 25% – that’s more than 10 times the State average!

Sadly, a total of 128 veterans and 54 staff members have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and dozens more are currently ill and awaiting test results, so those numbers are likely to rise. In addition, the nurses, aides and other front-line workers who continue to do their jobs, deserve actions and answers. The National Guard has been mobilized to assist in a situation that was both foreseeable and entirely preventable. In fact, prior to the outbreak, that facility received several complaints and a “below average” rating from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the category of health inspection, indicating greater health risks. The warning signs were there and the alarms were sounded. Where were our leaders? Where was the oversight at the State and Local levels?

Military veterans and the elderly are promised the world during campaign season, only to be ignored after the elections are over. It’s easy for politicians like Josh Gottheimer to find their way in front if a camera or behind a podium when it comes to these groups – especially ahead of an election. The real test of a public servant and their commitment to a community, is what they do when no one is looking. It’s called integrity, Josh.
At the height of the financial crisis, I led an organization that worked with the Treasury Department, large banks and the Veterans Administration to help keep veterans in their homes – at no cost to them. It wasn’t easy to coordinate so many large institutions – both in the public and private sector – toward one specific goal (which was not very popular at the time). However, we did it because I felt an enormous sense of respect and gratitude toward those who have sacrificed so much on behalf of our great country. We owe it to the residents of New Jersey – and especially our Veterans – to find out how this could have happened and to ensure it never happens again.

As predicted, Josh Gottheimer, Senators Menendez and Booker, and Phil Murphy are beginning to provide cover for themselves by calling for their own investigation. I wonder what will happen when that investigation points a finger at their inaction? What will happen when we find out how many concerns about those facilities passed through the hands of their own teams? What will come of the fact that more than half the COVID-19 deaths in Bergen County, occurred in facilities charged with caring for our elderly, our veterans and for those who can no longer care for themselves, like group homes for the developmentally disabled. Josh owes all of us an answer – and an explanation. The State of NJ failed the residents of LTC facilities. The unnecessary loss of life at a Wanaque, NJ facility 2 years ago should have served as a reminder of what can happen when our leaders fail to act in a preemptive and timely basis. After many press conferences and hearings, we were told it would never happen again – but it did. Of all the places in NJ, these facilities should have been prepared. Unfortunately, they were not, and the results have again been tragic. These residents comprise only 1% of our population yet account for 48% of the fatalities. This is unacceptable and those in charge need to be held accountable.

Proverb 31:8 states: “Speak out in behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of those who are vulnerable”. We must never forget those that are less fortunate. We must never play politics with the rights and benefits they have already earned or the care they deserve. It’s not just unfair, it’s immoral. I vow to be different.

We must do better. If I am fortunate enough to earn your vote, I will show you that we can, and will.