Republican lawmakers seek investigations into nursing home deaths

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan is among those asking federal agencies to investigate COVID-19 related deaths in New York state nursing homes.

Republican lawmakers continue to press for independent investigations into COVID-19 related deaths and illnesses in New York state nursing homes. 

Last week, they contacted both U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via a letter to the agency’s Inspector General’s Office to open an investigation.

And today, Assembly Republicans are asking the chairs of the committees on Aging, Health, and Oversight, Analysis and Investigations in the state Assembly to convene a hearing “to review and investigate New York’s policies, decisions and protocols that were utilized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on state-regulated nursing home facilities.”

The state has launched its own investigation to be conducted by the state’s Attorney General and the Department of Health, but Republicans say that the Department of Health investigating its own procedures presents a conflict of interest. 

In total, nearly 5,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New York nursing homes since March 1 — about 25 percent of all COVID-related deaths in New York. New York State Health Department statistics released on Monday, May 4 included previously undisclosed deaths of more than 1,600 people who likely died from the virus at nursing homes. From April 29 to May 2, approximately 100 more people died in nursing homes, according to state data.

After theses numbers were announced last week, Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, R-New Windsor, wrote a letter to Gary Cantrell, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on May 6 requesting an independent federal investigation into COVID-19 related deaths in New York state nursing homes.

“This news follows confirmation that New York state required nursing homes to take COVID-19 positive patients ensuring an even more rapid spread of the illness amongst our senior citizens and vulnerable populations,” Schmitt wrote to Cantrell. “We must know if New York state’s mandate that nursing homes take COVID-19 positive patients resulted in more deaths. We must also know if New York state or other government entities’ practices, protocols and requirements increased the spread of COVID-19 through these facilities, resulting in increased deaths.”

On March 25, the state Department of Health issued a directive requiring nursing homes to admit individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

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On Sunday, Gov. Cuomo announced new guidance for nursing homes, issuing an executive order mandating that all nursing homes and adult care facilities test all personnel for COVID-19 at least two times per week and report any positive test results to the State Department of Health by the next day.

The executive order also mandates that hospitals cannot discharge a patient to a nursing home unless that patient tests negative for COVID-19.

“Nursing homes, generally all across the country, have seen the COVID virus take a high toll,” Cuomo said on Sunday. New York has one of the highest populations of nursing home residents of any state in the country, over 100,000 residents. But New York’s percentage of deaths in nursing homes is the 34th highest of any state.

“None of this is good news, but just to give you context of what people are looking at. This virus uses nursing homes, they are ground zero. They are the vulnerable population in the vulnerable location, right? It’s a congregation of vulnerable people. Today we’re taking additional steps to protect seniors in nursing homes.”

Many veterans’ homes across New York have experienced severe impacts. The Long Island State Veterans Home reported 53 deaths. The New York State Veterans Home at St. Albans in Queens reported 33 deaths. The state Veterans Home at Montrose in Westchester has lost 22 residents to the COVID-19 virus.

Fourteen Assembly Republicans signed a letter to Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, Aging Committee Chair Harry Bronson, and Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Chair John McDonald dated May 11 that states “It is incumbent upon the Legislature to conduct its own inquiry into the state’s response and how future issues might be prevented.”

Republican senators said last week that nursing homes throughout the state have been facing budget cuts for years and the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the stress on these facilities. 

“When your loved one enters a nursing home, you expect them to be safe — safer than they are even in their own homes. Many of these facilities are going above and beyond to protect residents while the state’s response to the crisis in nursing homes has been wholly inadequate,” State Senator Sue Serino, ranking member of the Senate’s Aging Committee, said. “Weeks ago, I released a plan that would create an independent council to enforce transparency in facilities and concentrate COVID-19 patients in separate specialty care centers. The state needs to take these proposals seriously and act immediately to protect residents and give families peace of mind.” 

Senator Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, released a statement in which she called for increased state aid for nursing homes and adult care facilities. “As the state looks to make budget adjustments, it is absolutely critical that these facilities receive adequate reimbursement rates and fair funding,” the statement said.

“Our nursing homes, their staff, and their residents, who are really a family, are on the absolute front lines of this pandemic, and they need our strong and enduring support,” Senate Republican Leader John J. Flanagan said. “We know that allowing COVID into a nursing home is an invitation for it to spread, and we need to make sure that we take necessary steps to protect residents. We also believe that an independent investigation into the state’s actions is warranted to make sure that the tragic deaths at these nursing homes never occur again.” 

On Friday, May 8, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr to initiate an investigation.

“It is my fear and belief that to leave it in the hands of our governor and Attorney General … would be a disservice to those we have lost and the families who mourn them,” Malliotakis said.