ALBANY — A group of state lawmakers pressed Wednesday for an independent probe of nursing home COVID deaths, saying recent hearings on the issue did not provide the needed understanding of how 6,000-plus elderly New Yorkers died.
They are calling again for a nonpartisan review with bipartisan oversight.
There have been multiple efforts along these lines; this one started with state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who as a minority-party member has little clout on his own. Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, signed on to sponsor the companion bill in the Assembly, giving the drive bipartisan support at least in name.
There remains no indication that the leadership of the Senate or Assembly want to greenlight such a probe, which could be seen as damaging to their fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose decisions on nursing home policy through the crisis have been questioned and criticized.
The joint Assembly/Senate nursing home hearings Aug. 3 and 10 were very lengthy affairs but were short on data at times, and the legislators didn’t have subpoena power to force testimony.
The legislators who gathered in a meeting room at the Capitol on Wednesday said they hoped that with enough support from the public and enough co-sponsors in the Legislature, they’d have a chance of reaching their goal: An independent investigation with subpoena power.
The mostly Republican group was joined by Democrat Kim, whose district sits in the county with the highest death toll in New York state and lost an uncle to COVID in a nursing home, as well as Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Janice Dean, a Fox News Channel meteorologist who lost both her in-laws to COVID in adult care facilities.
Tedisco repeated a frequent criticism of a report by the state Department of Health report that found the agency’s policies on nursing home admission were not responsible for nursing home deaths. The state does not provide a death toll for nursing home residents in that report, and neither would Zucker during his Aug. 3 testimony, Tedisco pointed out, raising the question of how the state could be so definitive about something it can’t or won’t even quantify.
Also, the March 25 order that nursing homes not deny admission to residents based on their COVID-positive status was followed seven weeks later by an order that hospitals not discharge COVID-positive patients to nursing homes, a fundamental contradiction, Tedisco said.
“These are questions that need to be answered,” he said.
The point is not to excoriate the governor, he and others said, but to understand what went wrong and prevent it from happening again in a future pandemic, or during a resurgence of COVID-19 later this year.
And there’s the sticking point with any call for an independent probe: Cuomo has dug in his heels and denied any fault in his administration’s handling of nursing home policy, while his top aides sidestep questions on the matter or attack the questioner. So any attempt to bring out damaging information becomes an attack on him, and therefore partisan even if the architects of that attempt intend and proclaim the effort to be bipartisan or nonpartisan.
Kim alluded to this.
“Instead of sharing all that information, instead of being self-accountable, I think they are more concerned about reducing any criticism into partisan attacks and blaming others instead of being fully accountable for the last five moths,” he said.
Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, offered some direct criticism amid all the talk of bipartisan cooperation.
“The preventable deaths of 6,400 senior citizens due to the governor and state Department of Health’s reckless, irresponsible and deadly mandate that forced nursing homes to accept COVID-19-positive patients is a staggering, incomprehensible loss for the families in my Senate district and around the state,” she said, citing the death toll in the state report, which was cribbed from a New York Times analysis and is lower — perhaps substantially lower — than the actual death toll in New York’s nursing homes.
“New York state failed miserably,” she concluded.
Santabarbara said legislators are still awaiting for answers on what worked and didn’t work, and need them before the next public health crisis. New York is one of the only states that hasn’t provided a tally of nursing home residents who died in hospitals, he said. “To make our nursing homes safer, we need to know the real numbers.”
Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, noted the recent announcement that Cuomo is writing a book on leadership lessons from the COVID crisis, and cited a disconnect there.
“To be a good leader is to be willing and to have the humility to step back and say, what have I done right, what I have done wrong, what lessons can we learn?”
Walsh also hinted at the difficult prospects for Tedisco’s and Kim’s legislation, saying her “hope” is that it would advance to floor votes by the full Legislature.