State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli audit of the health department illustrates significant...

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli audit of the health department illustrates significant deficiencies in data collection and usage. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The deaths of thousands of New York nursing home residents, and the disturbing, monthslong effort to hide the true tally, continues to be a troubling dark mark in the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an audit of the New York State Department of Health released this week, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli laid out in detail how the reported numbers shifted over time, and how, even when state officials had more accurate data, the public accounting remained incorrect and incomplete. DOH failed to include in the publicly released tally about 4,100 COVID-19-related deaths of nursing home residents.

DiNapoli's audit, which began in September 2020 during the pandemic, but covered a time period from 2017 through late 2021, also illustrates significant deficiencies in data collection and usage, along with problems in communication within DOH and in its relationship with the governor's office.

Those larger conclusions — regarding unacceptable shortcomings in data analysis, the failure to use that data for timely oversight, and better regulation of nursing homes — are key. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state officials must use the audit's findings to structure radical change for this bureaucracy.

State officials aren't solely to blame for the intractable problems long-term care facilities face, from infection control and staffing to substandard care. The nursing homes themselves, as well as unions like 1199 Service Employees International Union, which represents most of the homes' workers, deserve some blame and responsibility for not righting their own ships and, at times, pushing back on demands for accountability.

A massive effort to improve regulation, data collection and use, public reporting, communication, and oversight should start with Hochul's administration and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett. They could begin by publicly acknowledging the department's flaws and past troubles and pledging a sweeping effort to determine next steps.

Instead, in an extensive response to the audit, DOH unfortunately pushes back on the comptroller's findings, points fingers at former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration, and doesn't focus on the moves it still should make.

Certainly, Cuomo and his team, along with former health department leaders, deserve some blame. Beyond its responsibility for how the deaths of nursing home residents were counted, the previous administration did not even cooperate sufficiently with auditors.

DiNapoli has regularly conducted health department audits and last addressed nursing homes in 2018, though the specifics were different. This audit's recommendations rightly focus on funding, staffing, training, data and communication, among other areas. The health department says some pieces improved with the change in administration. Others — especially in terms of funding and resources — will require legislative support. Federal money is available, too. But there's more to do — which starts with a recognition of the problems and a commitment to make change.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to wane, other public health threats loom. The DOH — and governor's office — must be ready.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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