Republicans are celebrating a possible U.S. Department of Justice inquiry into the COVID-19 crisis in New York state nursing homes, while others are concerned that the action is politically motivated.
The DOJ sent a letter to New York and three other states Wednesday, asking for data related to their handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. All four states ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals in order to free up hospital beds. New York’s controversial March 25 executive order placed over 6,300 COVID-positive patients into nursing homes before it was nullified in May.
State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt and other state Republicans have been calling for an independent investigation into New York’s executive order for months. He called the DOJ letter “long overdue.”
““I think the coverage of both our call for independent investigation and the (state’s nursing home public) hearings has gained national attention, and clearly has caught the eye of people at the federal level,” Ortt, R-Tonwanda, told WBFO on Thursday. “So I applaud the move.”
At the Congressional level, Rep. Tom Reed of the Southern Tier also applauded the letter, calling it an “important first step that could finally help New Yorkers who lost a parent or grandparent receive the accountability and transparency they deserve.”
“Getting to the bottom of the state’s ‘must admit’ orders will also help us ensure our nation’s parents and grandparents are never knowingly placed in harm’s way again,” Reed, R-Corning, said in a statement.
However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the DOJ action “all politics” by the Trump administration.
He noted that the letter was sent to four states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan — that all have Democratic governors, but that 10 other states, including some with Republican governors, have or had similar nursing home orders. That includes Florida, Cuomo said, which is seeing a spike in cases and recently implemented a similar order to New York.
“They have their convention on the TV at night. They changed the CDC guidance on COVID to echo their political theme. And then they're playing partisan politics at the Department of Justice,” Cuomo said during a conference call Thursday.
A Cuomo administration report from July found that New York’s order was not the major cause of nursing home infections and deaths. However, the report has been criticized for only factoring in the 6,400 nursing home residents to die of COVID within nursing homes, and discounting potentially thousands of others who died after being transferred to a hospital.
The Cuomo administration has refused to reveal this number to the public. State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker even refused to do so while under oath during the state Legislature's nursing home public hearing earlier this month, saying he still had to calculate the number.
The DOJ inquiry could finally lead to a disclosure, as the letter specifically asks New York for the number of nursing home residents to die in hospitals.
Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a New York City-based advocacy group for nursing home residents, said it’s important that the public know the state’s true nursing home death toll, but, like Cuomo, worries that the DOJ is politically motivated. He added that the Cuomo administration’s July report was also political in its defense of the order.
“I’d hate to go from one politicized analysis to another politicized analysis, without having the data that we all need,” he told WBFO Thursday. “And so I think it's important that we be talking about what's best for the residents here, what's best for families, not what's best for politicians.”
In a statement, the DOJ said the requested data will help it determine whether to launch a formal investigation into whether state orders placing COVID patients into nursing homes is responsible for nursing home resident deaths.
The potential investigation would fall under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the civil rights of those in state-run nursing homes and other state-run facilities.
Therefore, the DOJ is currently only asking for data about public, state-owned nursing homes. New York only has five such facilities, with another 600 privately owned facilities.
Ortt admitted this is “not the complete picture,” but called it a first step to “get the information that Senate Republicans have been seeking and that families deserve.”
“We’ll see where it goes from here,” he said.
Cuomo said he will turn over the data within the DOJ’s 14-day deadline.