New Jersey families welcome regulations of group homes for dementia patients

BY SALVADOR RIZZO AND ABBOTT KOLOFF The Record

Group homes for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia are expected to undergo more-rigorous scrutiny under a new law that was spurred by reports of patients wandering away or falling while unsupervised.

Under the measure signed by Governor Christie on Monday, such homes will be regulated as health care facilities by the State Department of Health, instead of as boarding homes under state housing officials. The homes, typically in residential neighborhoods, represent a relatively new niche in the elder-care market.

The law will take effect in June. One of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, said the new provisions will allow families of dementia patients in group homes to have “peace of mind knowing they’re getting the best care possible.”

As of last December, 24 dementia-care group homes were operating in New Jersey. Such facilities typically employ nurses and aides to take care of patients, and advertise themselves as a more home-like alternative to nursing homes.

Group homes for dementia patients have been regulated by the state Department of Community Affairs, whose inspectors are trained to monitor building and safety issues. The law’s sponsors argued that the facilities should be treated more like nursing homes and subject to the same kinds of regulations and oversight, with reviews conducted by people with medical expertise.

Under the new law, each group home will be required to get a new license as a “dementia care home” through the Department of Health.

Huttle took up the campaign after a 2012 story in The Record detailed a series of citations and safety lapses at a chain of group homes, formerly known as Potomac Homes and now operating under the name Memory Care Living. The company operates 13 homes across the state, including eight in Bergen County.

Memory Care Living was sued this year by the family of a womanat the company’s Mahwah home. The family said Mildred Ilchisin was found lying on the floor of her bedroom with a broken hip in January. She has since been moved to a nursing home. The case is pending in Superior Court in Hackensack.

The Ilchisins’ attorney, Marc Winograd, said on Monday that the new law is a “positive development” that was long overdue.

“When I got involved in this case, I was surprised and somewhat dismayed that there wasn’t a higher level of regulation,” Winograd said. “I definitely feel it’s necessary to have this high level of regulation.”

In two other lawsuits, families said their loved ones fell or were improperly treated for bedsores at the homes. One of the lawsuits was settled last year. A company spokeswoman said earlier this year that such lawsuits are “one-offs” and not typical, adding that many families are happy with the care provided by the homes.

Memory Care Living officials could not be reached for comment Monday night.

The new law calls for the Department of Health to establish standards for group homes for dementia patients. The law also requires the department to provide information about such homes on its website, including ownership and regulation violations, the same as it does now for other long-term-care facilities.

Three years ago, The Record’s review of inspection records for the company’s homes in North Jersey revealed reports of residents wandering out unlocked doors or gates, one incident in which a woman broke a hip climbing out a second-story window, and instances in which state inspectors found lax responses to residents’ medical needs.

That same year, the state ordered the company to discharge more than two dozen residents who depended on wheelchairs, saying they would be unable to get out of the homes on their own in an emergency.

The regulations governing the homes were rewritten in 2013 to allow the company to retain residents with mobility limitations. The new rules stipulated that homes hire additional aides to take care of such residents.

This year, a review of records found that Memory Care has been fined more than $20,000 for allegedly violating the new staffing requirements that its own lawyers had negotiated with state regulators. The company had been contesting the fines, saying its homes were appropriately staffed and state inspectors were improperly enforcing the regulations.

Staff Writer Colleen Diskin contributed to this article.