Attorney general’s investigation into nursing home negligence is badly needed

With a high number of the COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey reported from assisted living facilities and nursing homes, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is conducting an investigation into issues of negligence and other types of misconduct in these homes for our senior residents.

Even as the state enters the second phase of its reopening plan and many businesses are again permitted to operate with safety protocols in place, the pandemic is far from over and will likely continue to plague homes for the elderly for some time to come. The intervention of the Department of Health, the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office is a step in the right direction. Holding those responsible for the concealed operational aspects of these facilities and enforcing our strong existing laws that protect long-term care residents is critical.

Addressing the culture

Before COVID-19, some facilities we saw in our nursing home litigation practice were understaffed, leaving good nurses and other caregivers unable to cope with the sheer volume of the needs of their residents. Such a culture is marked with high turnover, minimally paying staff for important jobs and failing to provide necessary training. It does not take an expert in the field to understand that cutting operational costs directly impacts patient care and reduces necessary supervision of vulnerable residents.

We have seen that, when the health and wellness of patients is not prioritized, not only are the residents neglected, but facilities find themselves with poor ratings, disgruntled employees and a barrage of complaints from unhappy family members of the residents. As with any entity, culture starts at the top. Poor leadership yields poor care.

The attorney general’s investigation will focus on the business practices of these facilities and hold the leadership accountable for their handling of the pandemic. It is expected that leadership will be held accountable for the following:

  • Failure to be transparent with residents’ family members;
  • Failure to prepare, in general, for illness and pandemics;
  • Failure to follow the specific instructions of the relevant government agencies before and during the pandemic; and
  • Failure to enforce their own internal rules and regulations.

Learning from the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we all mourned the number of casualties in nursing homes. However, neither I nor my colleagues were surprised, as some assisted living facilities and nursing homes were unsafe and unprepared for meeting the residents’ needs even before the pandemic. Battling this pandemic required a game plan and strong leadership. However, many nursing homes have had broken systems, where failing to follow or enforce their own rules and regulations became the norm. It appeared that the front-line workers that we have always loved and respected were hampered by limited resources. Such facilities had little chance to adequately protect their staff and the residents from the ravages of COVID-19.

For facilities that did quite well in protecting their residents and staff before and during the pandemic, there appears to be a common thread — preparation. Facilities with established systems in place intervened early and often and heeded the warnings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and their own industry leaders.

Transparency from the Department of Health, the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office with regard to the results of their investigation will not only safeguard against a future pandemic, but will improve the quality of life that New Jersey’s seniors deserve. I applaud this effort and hope that the results will be made public. The scrutiny transcends the pandemic, as it should.

Denise Mariani, shareholder at the law firm of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, chairs the firm’s Nursing Home Negligence practice.