Sussex County commissioners to ask NJ AG for answers in nursing home COVID deaths

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The Sussex County Board of County Commissioners has asked its legal counsel to write a letter to the state Attorney General's Office requesting "up-to-date" information on the investigation into the COVID-19 deaths of residents at Andover Subacute and other state nursing homes.

The letter, to be presented at the commissioners' Jan. 5 meeting, will also request that acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck ask the state to honor all requests for information filed by the county under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) pertaining to the deaths and the investigation.

"A yearlong investigation by the New Jersey attorney general into Andover Subacute and other nursing homes has produced no news and the Murphy administration is still stonewalling Open Public Records Act requests for documents related to the operation of the nursing homes during the pandemic," reads an email from Samantha Gabriele, confidential assistant for the commissioners.

Andover Subacute and Rehab Center was overwhelmed with 17 bodies at their morgue that could only hold four bodies in Andover Township, N.J.
Andover Subacute and Rehab Center was overwhelmed with 17 bodies at their morgue that could only hold four bodies in Andover Township, N.J.

The request follows news that Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has issued an arrest warrant for the former owner of Andover Subacute on fraud charges.

Joseph Schwartz was charged in the $3.6 million Medicaid fraud case involving his facilities in Arkansas, according to that state's attorney general. He also owned the Andover facilities where 17 bodies were found in a makeshift morgue at the height of the pandemic in spring 2020.

Schwartz had given up ownership of the Andover facility before the pandemic to a group that included his son.

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Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation I and II in Andover Township was criticized in a scathing federal report last year that determined lack of proper care "has caused or was likely to cause serious injury or death to residents.” One of the state's largest nursing homes, with two facilities next to each other, it had beds for more than 700 patients.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, imposed a civil penalty of $220,235 during a 15-day period in which the facility was deemed in “immediate jeopardy."

Andover Subacute I and II underwent name changes last year: Andover Subacute I was renamed Limecrest Subacute and Rehabilitation Center, and Andover Subacute II was renamed Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center.

Since early 2020, 83 residents in both Subacute I and II have died from complications of COVID-19 and more than 270 have tested positive for the virus, data from the Sussex County Division of Health shows.

The governor's office referred all inquiries to the Attorney General's Office, which did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

More than 2,000 residents of the state's long-term care facilities have also tested positive in 364 active outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. And another 3,600 staff members of those facilities are COVID-positive, according to state data.

The worst outbreak currently underway is at the former Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation center, now known as Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center. State data shows that 158 residents and 84 employees have confirmed diagnoses of COVID, and two residents have died.

Medical workers move a patient from Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center II, in Andover N.J., April 19, 2020.
Medical workers move a patient from Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center II, in Andover N.J., April 19, 2020.

The commissioners, according to the county's email, want more information on the "poor management of the nursing homes in the run-up to Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 103 that forced many substandard long-term care facilities to accept COVID patients."

State officials were "responsible for the licensing and oversight of these facilities," which "heightens the need for transparency and full disclosure," reads the email announcing the request to the Attorney General's Office.

"The county commissioners have cooperated fully with the state investigation. Including allowing interviewing of staff members, all emails and correspondence, and emails to the state Health Department in response to what was happening at the nursing home,” Commissioner Herb Yardley is quoted as saying in the county's email.

It quotes Commissioner Anthony Fasano as saying, "It's been more than a year and we still have not heard anything about this investigation or how the policies, decisions and oversight directed at our nursing homes resulted in tragedy."

In November, county voters gave the commissioners the go-ahead to seek information on the root of COVID in nursing homes and to call for an investigation into the deaths of the elderly and veterans from those homes by voting yes on the county ballot question.

Last month, the Murphy administration agreed to pay $53 million to the families of 119 seniors, most of whom died of COVID-19 at state-run veterans homes, where questionable practices and poor decisions led to one of the nation’s highest nursing home death tolls during the pandemic, lawyers for the families said.

The settlement, reached days before Christmas, would pay an average of $445,000 to each family. They had argued that their loved ones became sick due to "gross departures" from nursing home standards and infection control at the homes in Paramus, Menlo Park and Vineland.

Staff Writers Scott Fallon, Lindy Washburn, Abbot Koloff and Lori Comstock contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Sussex County wants answers on COVID nursing home deaths from NJ AG

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