Republicans in the New York State Legislature, in their effort to investigate Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, are turning to a somewhat unlikely ally: President Joe Biden.
In a press conference Tuesday in Albany, state Republican leaders said that state Democrats have blocked their efforts to hold the Cuomo administration accountable for the state’s approximately 13,000 nursing home resident deaths, and now federal action is needed from the Biden administration.
“We need the [U.S. Department of Justice],” said Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. “We need the president's justice department to look into this because I think that's the only way we're going to get the answers that we continue to seek, and that’s the only way that the families who lost loved ones will get the information that they are rightfully owed.”
Much of the GOP’s criticism centers around last month’s report by the New York State Attorney General’s Office. The 76-page document found that Cuomo’s March 25 executive order, which placed 6,300 COVID hospital patients into nursing homes, may have put residents at risk and led to more deaths.
The report also confirmed that the state Department of Health undercounted nursing home COVID deaths by as much as 50% by not including residents who died after being taken to a hospital. State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker subsequently revealed the death toll was about 40% higher when factoring in hospital deaths.
“There needs to be a full investigation into the findings from this report,” Ortt said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”
A full investigation cannot be done at the state level in part because Democrats and their legislature supermajority have shielded Zucker and Cuomo from accountability, Republicans alleged Tuesday.
Republicans say state Sen. Tom O’Mara’s microphone was turned off in the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee last week after he made a motion to subpoena Cuomo and Zucker, while state Sen. Sue Serino’s motion to compel Zucker to testify before the Senate Aging Committee was ruled out of order Tuesday by the committee chair, Sen. Rachel May.
“The only thing out of order seems to be the majority's lack of political will and courage to do anything on this issue,” Ortt said.
In denying Serino’s motion, May, D-Syracuse, noted that Democrats in the Senate Health Committee were already introducing a package of nursing home bills, including a bill mandating the health commissioner be more transparent regarding nursing home deaths from COVID or any other communicable disease.
In August, May told WBFO she opposed subpoenaing Zucker for the number of nursing home residents to die in hospitals because legislators “need to have a relationship with the executive.”
Ortt called Democrats’ nursing home bills “a good start,” but said they do not go far enough and don’t do anything to hold the Cuomo administration accountable for its past policies.
“It's hard to determine the path forward if we don't know the full story of what happened and how we got here,” he said.
New York’s Congressional Republicans have already formally asked for a Department of Justice investigation. Last week, they sent a letter asking acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson to subpoena Cuomo and Zucker for all their documentation and communication regarding nursing homes.
One of the signees, Southern Tier Congressman Tom Reed, who is a member of the House Problem Solvers’ Caucus, said Republicans are hopeful this can be a bipartisan effort.
“Our reputation of being someone who respects each side of the aisle, will hopefully garner more support and we'll get a positive outcome here,” said Reed, R-Corning. “Because, again, this is not about a political issue. This is about 15,000 people that died.”
Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said last month that the Justice Department alone will decide if an investigation of Cuomo’s nursing home response is warranted.
“We’re in a new age where they’re independent and they will determine what path they take moving forward,” Psaki said during a Jan. 29 White House press briefing.
The Department of Justice under the Trump administration began a probe into New York and three other Democrat-controlled states’ handling of nursing homes. That investigation, a civil rights inquiry, was focused only on state-run nursing homes, of which there are only five in New York.
Reed said he’s still awaiting an answer on the status of that investigation.
“Hopefully, if it's already started and the Trump investigation is still there, we just dovetail that together, add this piece of information from the [New York[ AG … and then we build off of that foundational work,” he said.