September 13, 2023

Care Center, DOH Dropped the Ball, Says Freda

By Donald Gilpin

All 72 residents of Princeton Care Center (PCC) on Bunn Drive have been safely moved, at least for the time being, but shock waves from the sudden evacuation on Friday, September 1 will continue to resonate for the elderly residents, some now in nearby facilities and some more than 60 miles away, and dozens of Princeton emergency personnel and others who were on the scene assisting.

“Allowing this to happen is just unbelievable,” said Princeton Mayor Mark Freda. “The ball was dropped by both Princeton Care Center and the New Jersey Department of Health.”

The Department of Health (DOH) had been following the precarious financial situation at PCC for many months, said Freda, adding, “The Department of Health contacted us on August 4 to say ’By the way, we’ve been watching these guys. They’ve been having a lot of financial problems. We’re putting a Department of Health person in the building to make sure that proper care is being given. They’re having trouble making payroll, paying their bills, etc., and the landlord wants his money — all those things.’”

Freda said his office was informed repeatedly by the DOH that PCC, owned by mother and son Gail and Ezra Bogner, was in negotiations with other entities to take over the facility and its residents. “The week before Labor Day weekend we had been updated by the Department of Health, saying that discussions between some entity and Princeton Care Center were looking really good and that the sale would go through — not a problem — don’t worry about it,” said Freda.

He continued, “Then of course, on Thursday night, Princeton Care Center tells the Department of Health, ‘We’re going to evacuate everybody tomorrow.’”

Freda discussed the DOH’s failures in the process.  “The Department of Health could have been more actively involved, in my opinion, in the negotiations between

Princeton Care Center and the other entities — to sit at the table, to push everybody to find a way. That would have been the best solution,” he said.

“Also, the health department could have said, ‘No, you’re not closing on Friday of Labor Day weekend because that’s insane. We won’t let you close, and you’re staying open until next week.’ I’m sure the health department has that kind of authority.”

Freda added, “It didn’t have to happen the way it did,” noting that the DOH has the ability to bring in part-time staff and the authority and money to hire part-time workers to “come in and hold the fort until a solution is found, but they didn’t offer to do that.”

In response to queries from Town Topics, the DOH issued a statement on September 11, not exactly accepting blame for the sudden, unanticipated emergency evacuation, but accepting some responsibility for the event and a commitment not to allow such events to happen in the future.

“The Department of Health sympathizes with the residents and families who have been impacted by the abrupt closure of the facility and by relocation,” the statement from Nancy Kearney, deputy director of the DOH Office of Communications, reads. “We are actively reviewing this case and working with partner agencies, state departments, and key stakeholders to discuss regulatory and/or operational solutions to further strengthen the quality and resiliency of our long-term care system and that may help to avoid a situation like this from occurring again.”

The statement goes on to note that the DOH cannot force a facility to stay open, which would be forcing residents into an unsafe situation with staff unavailable to provide care for them.  The statement also notes that PCC was in violation of the law requiring 60 days’ notice to residents and the DOH prior to closing.

“The State Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, and the Office of the Long Term Care Ombudsperson continue to monitor the residents who were relocated to make sure they are afforded a choice of their permanent homes,” the DOH statement added.

Freda pointed out that the state, not local authorities, has jurisdiction over PCC, and “hopefully somebody will hold them accountable.”  Freda will be meeting this week with members of his senior staff and State Sen. Andrew Zwicker to follow up on the issue. “There have to be people who are held responsible here,” he said. “We’re going to put together a strategy on how to keep pushing that. I’ve been in touch with the governor’s office, letting them know it’s a topic that we’re very interested in, making sure that something is done.”

Though the municipality does not have jurisdiction over the PCC, many members of the municipal staff, the health department, the police, emergency personnel, and fire department spent many hours on September 1 assisting the PCC residents.

“The fire department went out and got boxes for people to pack their stuff,” said Freda, and people from the Princeton Health Department were helping residents pack their belongings. People from our staff went over and above the call of duty, trying to help as much as they could.”

In a letter of appreciation in the Town Topics Mailbox last week, Councilwoman Eve Niedergang praised the dedication of the municipal staff and of Zwicker, who spent many hours at the PCC helping the residents and trying to obtain state resources and personnel to help with the evacuation.

“The last residents left for their new accommodations after 11 p.m. on Friday, as did the municipal staff and volunteers assisting them,” wrote Niedergang.