It’s great that the public will finally get to see complete and accurate figures on deaths related to the coronavirus outbreak and nursing homes in the state.
The information — kept secret by the Cuomo administration — will give citizens a clearer account of how the state managed the transfer of nursing home patients between nursing homes and hospitals at the beginning of the covid crisis, and will help better guide state lawmakers in making policy that protects patients and staff.
It’s a positive development that the information will finally be released.
But it also reflects a complete failure by state government, in that to get the information released, it took a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) lawsuit brought by a government watchdog group six months ago; the pleadings of citizens, legislators, patients’ family members and newspaper editorial boards (including The Gazette’s); and a citizen-minded Supreme Court justice.
Back in August, the Empire Center for Public Policy filed a FOIL request seeking complete data related to nursing home deaths and hospitals.
The request was made in response to a state policy, now rescinded, barring nursing homes from turning away coronavirus-positive patients discharged from hospitals.
Under FOIL, the state is required to provide a reasonable timetable for releasing information and to offer reasons for any delays. But the state repeatedly offered excuses for why it couldn’t gather the information and kept extending the release date.
On Wednesday, state Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor put a stop to this nonsense, saying the state had ample time to gather the information for release and had violated the law by stonewalling.
Not only did the judge rule in the Empire Center’s favor and order the release of the information within five business days, but she also awarded court costs to the Empire Center.
Those costs, by the way, will be borne by taxpayers as a result of the state’s unnecessary and illegal withholding of public information.
If you think this case is an outlier as to how the state behaves in response to requests for information, you’d be wrong. Reporters and other members of the public routinely are forced to wait weeks or months for information.
It often takes an organization or a group of organizations with the money and manpower to wage an extended legal battle to secure information that the state should readily release without a fight.
We commend the Empire Center for waging this legal fight (with former Gazette reporter Bill Hammond leading the charge) and Justice Kimberly O’Connor for putting an end to this fiasco, as well as all the others involved in keeping this issue alive all these months.
The citizens are the victors in this battle — a battle they never should have had to fight in the first place.