Several New York state Senators and Assembly members say they were surprised to learn that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration does not provide internet access to people living in state-run group homes and other congregant settings, and they want that fixed immediately.
Senator James Skoufis, the chair of the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, says two of his constituents alerted him to the lack of Wi-Fi at the state-run group homes. Phil and Maryann Smith’s daughter Michelle, who has a disability, was living at a state-run home when the COVID-19 pandemic started last March. They were not allowed to visit her, and she had no internet access to visit with them virtually. Skoufis, a Democrat, said he was shocked to learn that no facility operated by the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, or OPWDD, provides broadband access for residents.
“These residents have been as isolated as ever before, many have not been able to see their parents, their families at all,” said Skoufis who said the residents have also been able to access needed telemedicine. “It is unthinkable that OPWDD has not provided internet to the thousands of residents that they’re supposed to service and care for.”
Senator Skoufis says the Smiths could not attend the press conference held outside the OPWDD headquarters in Albany, because they decided to take their daughter out of the home and care for her full-time, and she is unable to travel.
Skoufis says he had two meetings with the agency’s officials, and they told him the state was unwilling to pay the estimated $900,000 it would cost to hook everyone up with internet. He says that cost is a “miniscule” amount in the state’s $190 billion budget, but he says the state officials didn’t see it that way.
“And they actually compared it to (the state) having to purchase HBO and special channels on the TVs if the residents wanted to see these types of channels,” Skoufis said.
He says he was also told that the residents could not share the Wi-Fi provided free of charge to employees at the homes, because of security concerns.
Senator Samra Brouck, Chair of the Mental Health Committee, says the pandemic has laid bare already existing inequities in New York’s and the nation’s social infrastructure. She says some residents and their families can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost to contract with an internet provider directly to provide service to them.
“I’m aware of the incredible toll that this pandemic and the isolation and the physical distancing, has taken, on people’s mental health,” Brouck said.
Doug Hovey, President of Independent Living Inc., which advocates for people with disabilities, says the failure to provide access to the internet may be a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
“Title 2 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, requires that state and local governments provide universal access to accessibility features,” Hovey said. “Communication is no exception to that law.”
Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.
Senator Skoufis says if there’s no resolution soon, he’ll introduce a bill that mandates the internet access be provided. The Chair of the Assembly’s Committee on People with Disabilities, Tom Abinanti, backs the measure.
Also at Monday’s press conference, Skoufis threatened to subpoena Governor Cuomo’s health commissioner, if he does not provide data on how many nursing home residents died in the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic surge in New York last spring.
Senator Skoufis says he and other lawmakers have been seeking the data for months now, only to be told by Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker that they are still compiling the numbers. The Cuomo Administration issued a controversial order on March 25, 2020, that required nursing homes to allow hospitalized residents sick with COVID reentry into the homes. Critics say that decision led to unnecessary deaths as the residents still ill and contagious, spread the virus to others.
The health department issued a report in July that blamed nursing home workers for the spread of COVID in the homes, but has not yet released key numbers, including specific dates when the nursing home residents were first diagnosed with the virus, and how many residents died in hospitals.
Skoufis is asking Zucker to give him the numbers before a scheduled budget hearing on Feb. 3.
“The decision to issue subpoenas is not a unilateral one,” said Skoufis, who said, he is still working with the Democratic leadership in the Senate to obtain the go ahead to issue them. “But I am certainly at my end of the rope.”
Skoufis predicts a tense and confrontational hearing.