Add another handful of lawsuits to the tally of cases brought against nursing homes in New York alleging the wrongful death of a resident from COVID-19.
By one estimate, every county in the state has seen such a filing; in state Supreme Court in Albany County, five came in over the past two weeks. All allege violations of infection-control protocols in the early days of the pandemic and claim negligence by the nursing homes in not meeting their statutory duty of ensuring residents’ overall wellbeing.
As of this week, the state Department of Health reported more than 15,400 COVID-19 nursing home deaths in New York since March 2020, either confirmed or presumed at a home, or confirmed at another facility, such as a hospital.
For the 10-county greater Capital Region, the number of deaths comes to more than 700.
Stephen Hanse, president and chief executive of two Albany-based state groups serving the industry, doesn’t mince words about the lawsuits, calling them “unconscionable.”
While it’s human nature to want to place blame, he says, the lawsuits are being filed by “opportunistic attorneys seeking to take advantage,” of an “unprecedented health care crisis.” Hanse himself is a lawyer.
He recalls that at the outset of the pandemic, everyone was dealing with an unknown virus. There was little information on transmission; no testing or vaccines; and gloves, gowns and masks were in short supply.
New York adopted a “hospital-centric approach” to grappling with the virus under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hanse says. That put nursing homes toward the end of the line for equipment and supplies when, “the real focus of government should have been on nursing homes,” he said in an interview this week. “We care for the most vulnerable,” he added.
While health care providers and institutions received a measure of immunity in emergency legislation at the start of the pandemic for mistakes in caring for COVID-19 patients, that protection was repealed a year ago – which is one of the reasons the wrongful death lawsuits are now appearing on court dockets.
Hanse characterizes the repeal as “purely political,” a response by lawmakers emboldened by a “perceived weakness” in Cuomo from fallout from previously underreported deaths.
Bills proposed since then that would establish a victim’s compensation fund or extend the statute of limitations on wrongful death claims are “self-serving, opportunistic,” Hanse says. “These bills miss the mark. They seek to blame nursing homes for state policies of disinvestment.”
Hanse, who leads the 400-member NYS Health Facilities Association and NYS Center for Assisted Living, said he had no information on the number of nursing homes in the state that have been sued.
The latest lawsuits in Albany County paint a chaotic picture at two nursing homes where infected staff and residents comingled with the healthy, and families were not immediately notified of residents’ symptoms after exposure.
Three of the five lawsuits seek $2 million each in punitive damages.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].