Lawmakers want 'independent' probe of N.Y. nursing home COVID-19 deaths

Say Health Dept. can't investigate itself
Solving ethical problems in Albany
Posted at 4:27 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 10:35:07-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — State lawmakers are calling for an 'independent' probe of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes across the state.

Erie County now has 400 deaths from COVID-19 and last week officials said 55 percent of the county's total death count came from nursing homes.

Legislators from both parties are taking the side of nursing home residents' families, who say the more than 5,000 reported nursing home deaths in New York need to be investigated by someone outside the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. This was first reported by The Buffalo News.

Cuomo on April 23 announced a joint investigation with State Attorney General Letitia James, but Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, are calling into question why the health department, which is charged with regulating nursing homes, would be allowed to be a part of any probe into the state's response.

"The enforcement of health codes and safety codes by the health department has for decades been seriously understaffed and done with a very lax attitude," said Gottfried.

The department set the controversial March 25 order mandating nursing homes accept coronavirus patients from hospitals, which has been blamed for contributing to the spread of the disease in adult care facilities.

Additionally, the AG must act as the government's lawyer for all state agencies, including the health department, Gottfried noted.

"She is usually, by law, in the position of being the health department’s lawyer, and somebody’s lawyer is not going to do a very good job of investigating themselves," he said.

Gottfried would like to see an independent counsel take on the task, while Gallivan said the Senate’s Health Committee could hold its own nursing home hearings.

"I don’t think there’s a person in the state who’s not asking, ‘What the heck is going on in our nursing homes?’" Gallivan said.

Neither officials in Gov. Cuomo's office nor a spokesman for the State Attorney General responded to the legislators' remarks.

Gallivan said the reasoning behind that order should be probed, as well as more systemic issues that account for why quality of care in New York nursing homes regularly rank near the bottom of national surveys.

“It’s probably likely that the Legislature should have been looking into nursing homes long before this,” he said. “But clearly they need to be looked at: the operation of the nursing homes themselves and the state’s oversight of it.”