Ineligible New Jersey nursing home leaders received federal COVID-19 aid: WSJ

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Eight of nine senior managers at New Jersey's state-run veterans nursing homes made too much money to qualify for COVID-19 hazard pay, but received it anyway, according to records cited by The Wall Street Journal.

The veterans agency misappropriated payments at its three New Jersey facilities, records show. Managers procured the funds after being told they were ineligible, according to agency emails obtained by the Journal.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds were meant for lower-level state employees working in conditions made more dangerous by COVID-19. Managers in higher pay grades, including the chief executives and assistant CEOs of the veterans nursing homes, weren't eligible under any circumstances.

The agency launched an investigation after the Journal reported this March on improper payments to two high-earning managers. The state has since recovered some payments and has a plan to restructure operations beginning next month, state officials told the Journal.

Three top managers at Edison, N.J.-based Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home collectively received almost $40,000 in payments for which they were ineligible. The state has been unsuccessful in recovering about $13,400 it paid former Chief Executive Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles, who was fired in October, along with about $12,000 paid to her deputy, Kamala Kovacs, people close to the matter told the Journal. Ms. Kovacs has since resigned and declined the Journal's request for comment, while Ms. Schiff-Heedles denied knowledge of the payments in March and didn't respond to recent requests for comment.

Even after leaders were informed of their ineligibility, the homes kept submitting requests to the Civil Service Commission for payment approval to ineligible managers, emails show. The commission denied them, reports the Journal.

A state official told Dawn Graeme, Menlo's former human-resources manager, to remove the managers from the list of employees on the payment request. She said she did so. The bosses were paid anyway. State officials said the homes run their own payroll departments and CEOs must approve the payments, meaning facility CEOs likely signed their own hazard-pay checks even after approval was denied. 

Officials at New Jersey Veterans Memorial Homes Vineland submitted requests to pay 63 employees it claimed had extra duties involving COVID-19 during the two-week pay period ending April 10, 2020. However, the home didn't report its first suspected COVID-19 case until April 16, 2020, according to internal spreadsheets viewed by the Journal.

The Vineland facility's director of nursing services, Carmen Ellis-Jackson, RN, got $1,753 in hazard payments for the same pay period, records show, on the basis that she had spent 72 hours "administering COVID tests" and "treating COVID residents." Ms. Ellis-Jackson didn't respond to the Journal's request for comment.

The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is investigating the payments and "any erroneous or unauthorized payments will be recouped," spokesperson Kryn Westhoven said in a statement cited by the Journal.

 

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