Denial by delay.
That’s the game often played by government bodies when they don’t want to release information to the public.
Respond to a citizen’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request by setting an aspirational date for release of the information.
Then, when that date arrives and the individual or group making the request for information expects to receive its documents, the government agency responds by saying it needs even more time.
It’s a game that members of the media, good-government groups and citizens who regularly file FOIL requests are used to playing.
Only it’s not a game.
It’s government exploiting language in its own transparency laws to keep vital, timely information from reaching citizens.
Eventually, either the requester gets tired of making the demands, runs out of money needed to pursue the information, or the information itself becomes outdated or irrelevant by the time it’s actually released.
That appears to be the path being chosen by the state Health Department when it comes to releasing complete information about deaths in nursing homes related to the coronavirus.
Since Aug. 3, the Empire Center for Public Policy has been among those groups and media organizations seeking records of COVID-related deaths of residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, including those who died while physically outside of the homes.
This requests are based on the suspicion that the state may be deliberately underplaying the number of deaths in nursing homes, particularly those related to a now-rescinded policy enacted in March that barred nursing homes from turning away coronavirus-positive patients discharged from hospitals.
In response to the Empire Center’s FOIL request for a full accounting, the Health Department said at the end of August that it needed until Nov. 5 to gather the information and release the documents.
Well, Nov. 5 arrived last week and, big surprise, no documents were forthcoming.
The agency responded that it now needed another extension, until Jan. 13, to review the records for “applicable exemptions, legal privileges and responsiveness,” according to the Empire Center.
It also warned that additional delays are possible.
Now we’re up to at least five months for the state Health Department to provide records from reports that the agency collects from nursing homes on a daily basis.
And you can expect that when Jan. 13 rolls around, they’ll find another excuse not to release the records.
Having this information is vital to nursing home patients, their families, health professionals, state legislators and other citizens.
A full accounting will help us all understand the impact of the spread of the virus to vulnerable nursing home patients and could help lead to solutions and policies that may help stop the spread.
As the virus enters the winter phase and the state and nation are seeing spikes in the number of cases, it’s more important than ever that we have accurate information about the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes.
But releasing this information will make the state look bad and shine the spotlight on its failures.
That’s generally why government agencies refuse to release information, and why they use delay tactics like this to keep the public from seeing it.
Enough is enough.
This information exists. The government agencies have access to it. And they’ve had going on four months to gather it and release it to the public.
The citizens have a right to know exactly how many COVID-related deaths can be ascribed to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and how state policies and
practices are related to those deaths.
No more stalling. No more excuses.
Release the information now.