N.J. Assembly committee advances bill that would increase regulations for 24 dementia-care group homes

By Colleen Diskin

Small group homes for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia could face more scrutiny of the care they provide to their residents, under a proposed law that cleared an Assembly committee Thursday.

The measure requiring the state Department of Health to take over the responsibility of regulating and inspecting the 24 dementia-care group homes in the state was approved by the Assembly Health and Senior Services committee without any opposition being voiced.

Small group homes for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia could face more scrutiny of the care they provide to their residents, under a proposed law that cleared an Assembly committee Thursday.

The measure requiring the state Department of Health to take over the responsibility of regulating and inspecting the 24 dementia-care group homes in the state was approved by the Assembly Health and Senior Services committee without any opposition being voiced.

The chief sponsor, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, said she hopes for a full Assembly vote before the end of the year on the proposal, which would reclassify these small businesses – a relatively new niche in the long-term-care market -  as health-care facilities rather than as boarding homes.

“These are much more than boarding homes,” said Huttle (D-Englewood), pointing out that individuals with dementia need careful monitoring and often have other underlying medical issues.

The lawmaker argued that the care provided by the homes’ on-site nurses and aides should be reviewed by health department officials, who have medical backgrounds, rather than by inspectors from the Department of Community Affairs, who are trained more as building and safety inspectors.

Huttle took up the campaign for tougher regulatory scrutiny after a December 2012 story in The Record detailed a series of citations and safety lapses at a chain of group homes, formerly known as Potomac Homes but now operating under the name Memory Care Living.

A review of inspection records of those homes revealed incidents in which residents had wandered out unlocked doors or gates, one in which a woman broke a hip climbing out a second-story window, and others in which state inspectors faulted the homes for lax responses to residents’ medical needs.

Initially, the company - which now operates 13 homes, including eight in towns throughout Bergen County - was issued fines totaling more than $100,000. But company representatives disputed many of the facts contained in the citations and contested state inspectors’ orders to transfer dozens of residents to institutions that offer a higher level of care.

The homes the company operates have only 15 or 16 private rooms, large airy front porches and picket fences. They blend into the residential suburban neighborhoods where they are located, and representatives say families prefer to have their loved ones in these more home-like environments rather than in institutional-like settings.

The bulk of the fines the company had faced in 2012 were eventually rescinded, as the community affairs department decided instead to revise the rules under which these homes operate. New regulations that took effect March 3 require residents who move into these group homes to contract with a home health agency – independent of the group home operator - to assess their health needs at admission and every three months afterward. The new provision seeks to make sure a resident’s health hasn’t deteriorated to the point where they require more care than the group homes can provide, which state inspectors had cited as a major concern when they issued the fines.

Huttle said the new rules were a step in the right direction “but they need to be codified into law and the Department of Health should be the one overseeing these homes.”

“We got their attention anyway,” she said of state regulators.

An attorney and an administrator from Memory Care Living did not return telephone calls and emails Thursday seeking comment on the proposed new law.

Huttle said the company has not registered opposition to the measure, leading her to believe it will have no trouble eventually passing both Houses. But a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) is not yet scheduled for a committee hearing.

Email: diskin@northjersey.com