Legislature to review handling of nursing homes in pandemic

Associated Press In this May 8 file photo, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives an update on the coronavirus pandemic during a media conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie.

ALBANY — Democratic lawmakers with both chambers of the New York Legislature will delve into the Cuomo administration's procedures and protocols for managing the nursing home industry's COVID-19 crisis at a formal public hearing, CNHI has learned.

"Hopefully, our hearing will make a lot of issues clearer and highlight the long-term problems at nursing homes with state funding and the oversight of nursing homes," Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan said in an interview. "It's not going to be easy to get through some of the fog. But we're going to try."

He said he expects there will be an announcement soon on the date of the hearing.

Some 6,300 residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19 since the state recorded its first virus infection in early March.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given his administration high marks for its response to the crisis. He has accused Republicans of politicizing the nursing home deaths, suggesting they are trying to do damage control for President Donald Trump's administration in Washington.

However, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are now questioning the protocols used by the state Health Department, an agency under Cuomo's control, in dealing with the contagion..

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-the Bronx, said she was disappointed that Cuomo this week blamed nursing home staffers for spreading the virus at the facilities.

"It's a way for the governor to pass the buck and to avoid responsibility for what the state's role here is," Biaggi told CNHI.

The senator said there are also indications some nursing homes fell short in properly communicating infection-control protocols to employees. But it is the state, Biaggi said, that is the "ultimate entity with the responsibility" to safeguard the frail residents of the state-licensed facilities.

Among state actions that warrant examination, she said, is the Health Department's controversial March 25 order requiring nursing homes to accept patients from hospitals even if they had tested positive for the virus. Cuomo's health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, imposed the order at a time when the state was trying to prepare hospitals for a surge in coronavirus-related admissions.

There are also concerns with the state authorizing asymptomatic nursing home staffers to reporting to duty, a practice that was eventually discontinued, Biaggi said.

"He has spent a lot of time pointing fingers at other people rather than taking ownership of his own mistakes and really thoughtfully addressing the problem," Biaggi said.

Cuomo, appearing on MSNBC this week, suggested New York nursing home patients were infected when staff members went to work while they were positive for the virus.

"Now how do you fix that in the future?" he asked. "I don't know that you really can."

The governor, on May 10, scrapped the March 25 mandate imposed on nursing homes. He has repeatedly faulted Trump and the federal Centers for Disease Control, contending the state was merely following federal guidance.

However, Politifact, a web site that evaluates the accuracy of statements by political figures, rated the Cuomo administration's explanation "mostly false."

New York's estimate that some 6,300 nursing home patients died from the contagion is expected to grow substantially once fatalities that resulted after patients were transferred to hospitals are added.

A Trump administration spokesman, Hogan Gidley, responding to the governor's contention that New York was getting its guidance from the federal government, called Cuomo "alone to blame for refusing to shut down New York and forcing seniors who tested positive for coronavirus back into his state's nursing homes."

Jill Montag, a state Health Department spokeswoman, said when facilities signaled they couldn't care for patients, the state "offered to help with transfers, provided access to 96,000 staffers — which 400 out of 600 homes used. The state also gave the homes more than 13 million pieces of protective equipment."

Over the past three months, the state has completed 586 inspection control inspections at nursing homes and another 504 at adult care facilities, she said.

As the pandemic reached New York in March, Cuomo agreed to provide blanket corporate immunity to nursing home owners, protecting them from negligence claims.

Biaggi and Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, have authored legislation to repeal that provision. Gottfried said he has agreed to co-sponsor that legislation.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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