NJ dementia home legislation in limbo

By Colleen Diskin The Record

A bill that toughens oversight of small group homes that care for elderly residents with dementia is awaiting action from Governor Christie, but a decision could still be months away.

Christie has not publicly voiced an opinion on the measure, which would transfer regulatory authority for the state's 24 licensed dementia-care group homes to the state Department of Health.

Under legislative rules, the governor could have months to decide, and a staff member said this week it was still under review. But a veteran Republican lawmaker said Wednesday that the Christie-led health department opposes such a transfer and that the governor is likely to veto the bill.

The measure was drafted two years ago by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, D-Englewood, in response to a series of safety lapses that occurred at a chain of 13 group homes now operating under the name Memory Care Living, eight of which are in Bergen County.

The homes – which have 15 or 16 bedrooms and market themselves as less-institutional alternatives – are monitored by the Department of Community Affairs.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, said he was one of eight Republican senators to oppose the measure last week out of concern it would lead to overregulation of a long-term-care option that should be viewed as "housing."

Categorizing these group homes as a type of health-care facility would be "overregulatory" and likely drive up costs for consumers, Cardinale said.

"The Department of Health doesn't believe this bill is necessary because regulatory adjustments have been made," said Cardinale, reading from party caucus notes that he said were prepared for Senate Republicans before the measure went to a vote.

The regulatory changes Cardinale was referencing are the result of a compromise state regulators reached with the operators of Memory Care Living, which formerly went by the name Potomac Homes. The chain had had a long-running battle with the state over whether it could house dementia sufferers who also have mobility limitations and other health complications, and between 2010 and 2012 the company was fined more than $100,000 over incidents where lax supervision was alleged.

A December 2012 article in The Record chronicled a series of those incidents, including one in which a female resident broke a hip climbing out a second-story window and another in which a male resident wandered into the middle of a busy intersection.

In the compromise reached two years ago, the state dropped many fines and revised rules to require additional staff at any home with more than four residents deemed in need of extra help.

But in recent months, Memory Care Living has been fined more than $20,000 for failing to follow those new rules, according to state inspection reports. The company is contesting those fines.

Huttle, the bill's chief sponsor, has argued that health department inspectors, who have medical training, are better suited to monitor the homes and evaluate whether residents are suitably placed or instead need to be transferred to a health-care facility that offers a higher level of care.

She said the regulatory changes in 2013 have not put to rest her oversight worries, nor those of family members who have been calling her office with complaints about insufficient staffing.

Huttle said it was inappropriate for Republican senators to be seeking input from the administration before deciding how to vote, and pointed out that the Department of Health did not raise any objections when hearings were held on the bill.

"They are blurring the lines of government by only giving their input to one side of the aisle," she said.

Under legislative rules, the governor has until the next time the Assembly – the chamber where the bill originated – is in session to either sign or veto. But the Assembly has recessed for the summer and may not meet again until late fall.

Email: diskin@northjersey.com