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NYS Senate advances 10 bills to address nursing home pandemic issues

New York State Senate

The New York State Senate 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 that also found Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration significantly undercounted nursing home deaths.

The package of 10 bills approved by the Senate Health Committee would, among other things, require the Cuomo administration’s health department to report deaths of all residents of nursing homes and other adult care facilities, even if they died in the hospital.

The state’s 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 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’s things need to be codified in law, mandated in law that actually secure people’s safety and well-being, 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 who had COVID-19 with those who were not sick, leading to further spread.

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 said 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 said 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.

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 said he doesn’t believe it’s essential to know where the residents died.

“Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, people died,” Cuomo said on Jan. 29. 

If the bills ultimately pass the Senate and the Assembly, and the governor disagrees with the bills, Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature and could override Cuomo’s objections.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.