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Some Dems join call for independent nursing home investigation

The state lawmakers joining the call for an

The state lawmakers joining the call for an independent probe focused on the state Health Department's March 25 directive on nursing homes regarding coronavirus patients. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

ALBANY — Some Democrats now are joining Republicans in calling for an independent probe of how Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s policies might have impacted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Rank-and-file state legislators say an investigation, which Cuomo announced last month, by the governor’s own Health Department and state Attorney General Letitia James isn’t good enough.

“It’s fine to have the Health Department and the attorney general looking at what individual nursing homes are doing. But there needs to be a professional review of not only the industry as a whole but what the Department of Health has been doing, both leading up to this situation and in the midst of this situation,” said Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) on Wednesday. “Certainly, it would be wrong for the Department of Health to be charged with examining itself.”

Further, the attorney general's office could have a conflict of interest because it represents state agencies, including the Health Department, in lawsuits, the assemblyman noted.

“The attorney general should bring in outside counsel,” said Gottfried, the longtime chairman of the Assembly Health Committee.

Last week, Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and other Republicans called for an outside or federal investigation. They focused on the March 25 Health Department directive that nursing homes could not deny patients admission solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.

New York now has more than 5,000 confirmed and suspected deaths in nursing homes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, Cuomo, a Democrat, announced hospitals can no longer send a COVID-19 patient to a nursing home. An aide insisted this was not a reversal, but a new policy based on increased hospital capacity and testing.

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“We now have the capacity and the additional testing that we didn’t have in March,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Sunday. “Positive [COVID-19] patients can also be released to the COVID-19-only facilities we set up.”

On Wednesday, Azzopardi added that the March 25 directive was based on guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was "virtually identical" to those of several other states, and "the clear policy is if a nursing home does not have the facilities, the staff nor the protective equipment to care for a resident, they must transfer them to a place that can — period."

Cuomo’s fellow Democrats now are raising questions, too.

Gottfried didn’t directly criticize the March 25 directive, but he said a key issue is that the state for years “allowed nursing homes to be understaffed.”

Others were more focused on the governor’s directive.

“The governor’s flip-flopping policies on nursing homes must be held accountable,” Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Flushing) wrote on Twitter. “First, they tried to keep the virus out by denying access. Then, they tell unprepared facilities to take in COVID-19 patients. Now they are back to keeping the virus out again.”

Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said the Legislature itself should investigate.

“I strongly believe that the Legislature is one of the key entities that should look into this issue, which has devastated so many families across our state,” Rivera, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement. “It is imperative to hold public hearings as soon as possible to get to the bottom of what truly happened at our state’s nursing homes as the COVID-19 pandemic developed.”

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