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Bipartisan Coalition Pushes New Probe Into Nursing Home Deaths
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Lawmakers at a press conference in Albany
Lawmakers hold a press conference in Albany on Wednesday, Aug. 19
Credit: Dan Clark

Republicans in the state Legislature are hoping that support from a handful of Democrats on a bill to establish an independent probe into the state’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 crisis will garner momentum for the measure.

The bill would empower the Legislature to form a commission with power to subpoena state officials and conduct a deeper investigation into how more lives could have been saved.

It’s sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Capital Region, and Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens. For Kim, it’s personal; his uncle died from COVID-19 at a nursing home in New York.

“We need the rest of the facts, and they haven’t been given to us,” Kim said. “I think they are more concerned about reducing any criticism into partisan attacks and blaming others instead of being fully accountable for what happened in the last five months.”

New York state has recorded more than 6,000 COVID-19 deaths linked to nursing homes, though that number is likely higher. When someone is transferred to a hospital before they die from the virus, they’re not included in the state’s count of nursing home deaths.

Health officials in New York have defended the practice, saying they don’t want to accidentally double-count someone as both a hospital death and a nursing home death.

That’s been met with criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, questioned Health Commissioner Howard Zucker about the method during a digital public hearing earlier this month.

“It seems that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so that you can look better,” Rivera said.

That’s what the legislation sponsored by Tedisco and Kim would aim to clear up. The pair held a press conference on the bill Wednesday at the state capitol, where they were joined by a handful of other lawmakers from both major parties.

“We want the reasons for why the actions that took place caused this wildfire of the loss of life,” Tedisco said. “We have to get the best, realistic answers for why this happened, and how we’re going to stop this from happening.”

The bill would create a five-member commission, which would be formed through appointments by the Legislature and Attorney General’s Office. Each of the four party leaders in the Legislature would have one appointment. The last would go to the attorney general.

The commission would then undergo an investigation into the state’s nursing home deaths, including what factors may have made the crisis worse in those facilities. It would have the power to subpoena state officials and request documents.

A report would be issued from the commission to the Legislature by November 30, according to the bill. The Legislature would then take that report and enact measures reflecting the panel’s recommendations.

As of now, the legislation doesn’t appear to have the votes to pass in either chamber, both of which are controlled by Democrats. In the Senate, no Democrats have signed on to support the measure, and members haven’t coalesced around the bill in the Assembly.

Spokespeople for the majority conferences in both chambers didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the measure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly brushed off questions about a potential independent investigation into the state’s handling of nursing homes, pointing out that probes are already underway by both Congress and the Legislature.

The state Department of Health also conducted its own investigation into nursing home deaths this year, and concluded that the virus was primarily brought into facilities by visitors and staff who had contracted COVID-19 but weren’t showing any symptoms of the disease.

Lawmakers held a pair of hearings earlier this month on the state’s handling of nursing homes, but did not use their broad-reaching subpoena power at the time. Zucker ended up testifying for about two hours during the first hearing.

Democrats are expected to form new legislation or policy recommendations based on those hearings, but have yet to do so.