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Hearing to focus on COVID deaths at NY nursing homes

ALBANY — New Yorkers are expected to get the most independent review to date of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths at state-licensed nursing homes and long-term care facilities at a legislative hearing set to begin Monday.

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, has been asked to testify at the proceeding though he has not yet accepted the invitation, said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee.

Representatives from the nursing home industry and advocates for patients and their relatives are also expected to speak at the joint hearing to be held by the state Senate and Assembly. It will be held online and will feature a second day of testimony Aug. 10.

“We want to learn more about what has been happening in the nursing homes, with home care, the adult homes and the hospitals, what contributed to the problems and most importantly what lessons can we learn for the future,” Gottfried said in an interview.

Cuomo has defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic’s impact at nursing homes, though a number of Democrats and Republicans have criticized a March 25 directive from Zucker to nursing homes, advising them: “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the (nursing home) solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”

Former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, is among those who have called for an in-depth investigation into the more than 6,300 deaths of nursing home patients in New York since March.

The March directive became controversial immediately. CNHI reported that it was criticized in late March by the American Medical Directors Association, which predicted it would increase the rate of coronavirus transmission, endanger health care workers, result in many more patients returning to hospitals from infections and “escalating the death rate.”

The directive, later rescinded by Zucker, was issued at a time when the state was trying to free up space in hospitals in anticipation of a surge in virus-related admissions.

Richard Mollot, director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a group that advocates for nursing home patients and their families, said he hopes lawmakers are successful in getting data about the pandemic impacts that the state has not yet made available.

“We have not had good and complete information and also we have not had accountability,” Mollot said. “We’re not out to hang anybody, but on the other hand we need to have an accounting because we need to be ready and responsible for when we go forward.”

In early July, the Health Department, an agency controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, issued a report that concluded the nursing home infections increased after asymptomatic workers and visitors brought the contagion into the facilities. But that report did not silence the critics of the Cuomo administration’s efforts to contain the spread.

Bill Hammond, director of heath policy research for the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank, said the deaths of thousands of nursing home residents is a significant component in “the biggest disaster that New York state has experienced.”

“The pandemic hit here before we know what we know now,” Hammond said. “We didn’t know about asymptomatic transmission. We didn’t have good testing. We didn’t understand that it was going to be so deadly for elderly people with underlying conditions and barely affect most younger people. And it got into the nursing homes before we even knew it was in the state.”

Gottfried said he hopes the hearing will shed light on what he views as long-standing inadequacies in state enforcement of nursing home regulations, chronic staffing shortages and insufficient public funding, all problems that contributed to the catastrophe driven by the pandemic.

“Staffing levels before the epidemic hit were the staffing levels providers had to work with (when the contagion reached New York),” the assemblyman said. “They didn’t ramp up their staffing in response to the pandemic. It often went the other way because a lot of the staff became sick or died or were not willing to come to work.”

A nursing home industry leader, Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, said the facilities he represents need to get the same support and emphasis from policy makers as hospitals receive.

“I hope there is a recognition that the only entity to blame for what has happened in this epidemic is the COVID-19 virus,” Hanse said. “It was not the fault of any policymaker. It was not the fault of any directive. It was the fault of the virus.”

He said the industry was coping with a staffing shortage, a situation that was further complicated when there was a insufficient supplies of personal protection equipment as demand quickly escalated, followed by inadequate availability of tests and laboratory capacity.

Meanwhile, nursing homes, with 77% of their residents getting Medicaid benefits, have gone 12 years without any increase in financial support, Hanse said.

“I hope the hearings show that New York needs to alter it policies of continually cutting nursing homes and assisted living providers and begins to reinvest,” he said.

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