The New York State Senate has advanced several bills that would address problems in the state’s nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as outlined in a recent Attorney General’s report which also found that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration undercounted nursing home deaths.
The package of ten bills approved by the Senate Health Committee would, among other things, require the Cuomo administration’s Department of Health to report deaths of all residents of nursing homes and other adult care facilities, even if they died in the hospital. Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker withheld the data on the hospital deaths during the past 11 months of the pandemic, until a few hours after Democratic Attorney General Tish James issued a report that found the nursing home deaths had been underreported by 50%.
Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat, said he was “saddened, but not surprised” by the new data, which shows that nearly 15,000 elderly adults in long-term care settings died of COVID-19.
“What these numbers show us is that there were a lot of things wrong here,” said Rivera. “And if there are things that need to be codified in law, mandated in law that actually secure people’s safety and wellbeing, that’s what we want to do.”
Other bills would require state health officials to conduct more thorough inspections for infection preparedness. The Attorney General’s report found many nursing homes were woefully unprepared for the pandemic, and struggled to supply personal protective equipment to staff. They ignored infection control policies, and some housed residents with COVID-19 with those who were not sick, leading to further spread of the virus. Additionally, nursing home ratings would have to be published, so that people could make better decisions when choosing a facility. The AG’s report found that homes with lower ratings had higher death rates.
Another measure would permit family members limited visitation rights during a pandemic. Rivera says families testified in hearings held by the legislature that the nearly yearlong ban from the homes led to deteriorating physical and mental health for their relatives. He says family members were part of the “care team” for the individuals in nursing homes.
“When they were not allowed to have any access to their family members, they got worse very quickly,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure that following all safety protocols necessary they still get an opportunity to get access to their family members.”
Governor Cuomo has had little to say about the Attorney General’s report. He has expressed confidence in his health department’s oversight of the nursing homes during the pandemic, and says he doesn’t believe it’s essential to know where the residents died.
“Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in nursing home, people died,” Cuomo said on January 29.
If the bills ultimately pass the Senate and the Assembly, and governor disagrees with the bills, Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and could override Cuomo’s objections.