Lawmakers seek to expand state help for veterans

(The Center Square) — New Jersey lawmakers want to provide more support for the state’s veterans with a package of proposals working its way through the state Legislature.

One proposal, which cleared the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Monday, calls for a supplemental appropriation of $500,000 to the state Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs for the New Jersey SOS Veterans Stakeholders Group. The group provides transportation, housing, clothes, medical care and other services to veterans.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said many of the state’s 400,000 veterans require some form of services that isn’t reaching everyone who needs it.

“It’s a sad fact that too many of our veterans who need help fall through the cracks,” Corrado said. “Whether our veterans need emergency lodging, clothing, food, or transportation, we want to make sure we have support organizations that are ready and able to help. After all of their sacrifices, it’s the least we can do.”

Another bill filed by Corrado, cosponsored by several Democrats, would require the state to award grants to several New Jersey counties — Atlantic County, Cape May County, and Cumberland — to provide veterans with improved access to homeless shelters. The measure was approved Monday by the veterans’ affairs committee.

“Due to mobility issues, homeless veterans’ access to resources is often limited by their geographic location,” she said. “When conditions, such as inclement weather, require veterans to seek out temporary shelter, too often they find themselves isolated from shelters and other facilities that can best suit their needs.”

A bill filed by Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, would provide free admission to state parks and historic sites for veterans on several holidays, including Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day and Independence Day. Admission would be free to veterans who’ve been discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable, Bucco said.

“This is a small way to honor our country’s military personnel and show our appreciation for their service and sacrifice,” Bucco said in a statement.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget calls for spending an additional $2.28 million to improve staffing ratios and salaries, and to hire certified infection control specialists at state-run veterans’ homes.

The Murphy administration has been criticized for its management of COVID-19 outbreaks at the veteran homes, which reported one of the highest death rates in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus claimed the lives of more than 200 residents and staff, more than half of them at the Veteran’s Memorial Home at Menlo Park in Edison, according to state health officials.

Murphy pushed through a number of reforms in response to the deaths, overhauled the leadership at the veteran homes, and enacted policy changes aimed at improving management of the facilities.

To date, the Murphy administration has paid out more than $68 million to resolve claims of gross negligence and incompetence by veterans’ home administrators, filed by the families of residents who died during the height of the pandemic.

In August, Menlo Park employees filed a lawsuit against the state claiming that punishing workers for not wearing masks and other COVID-19 precautions put their lives at risk.

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