Cuomo may be forced to reveal truth about nursing homes

ALBANY — The days of summer glide by as we prepare to greet September. And Andrew Cuomo still refuses to tell us how many nursing home residents in New York died from COVID-19.

The governor may not be able to stall for much longer. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice demanded data from New York and three other states that required nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients. The DOJ said it is weighing an investigation into whether the orders violated the civil rights of nursing home residents.

That’s a blow to Cuomo, surely, but it’s potentially a victory for the many New Yorkers who have been pushing for honest data and a truthful account of how COVID-19 devastated the state’s nursing homes.

“I’m sitting here in my living room and I’m in tears,” said Janice Dean, a meteorologist with Fox & Friends whose in-laws died after contracting COVID-19 in New York nursing homes. “We may finally have a chance to get answers.”

If you’re new to this, here’s some of the backstory: In April, as COVID-19 fatalities started to spike, the state changed how it counted nursing home deaths, deciding that residents who were transferred to hospitals before they died from the virus wouldn’t be part of the total.

That means that the state’s official tally of more than 6,000 nursing home deaths from COVID-19 is a significant undercount, even though it’s among the highest of any state. Keep in mind that other states don’t count nursing home deaths this way.

Why did the state change how it counts? As I’ve said in prior columns, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe the change was tied to the state’s hotly controversial mandate, issued March 25 and kept in place for 46 days, requiring that nursing homes accept COVID-19 patients and forbidding the facilities from even testing for the virus.

Cuomo has often used statistics derived from New York’s flawed undercount to defend the mandate, which likely explains why he doesn’t want the full number released. Accurate data might reveal the true cost of the order. It might make the governor look bad.

This has been about public relations, then, not policy. Politics instead of honesty.

“I just hope the truth will eventually come out,” said Dean, who was in Albany last week as part of a bipartisan push for an independent investigation (with subpoena power) of the state’s nursing home decisions. “I just want fair questions answered.”

Cuomo has insisted that no such investigation is necessary. He notes (correctly) that some other states had similar nursing home orders, asserts (falsely) that New York was merely following federal guidelines and claims (also falsely) that criticism of the mandate is only coming from the political right.

The Justice Department on Wednesday said orders like the one imposed in New York “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.” The extent of the review is not immediately clear, because the civil rights law behind the department’s request seems to apply only to public nursing homes owned or operated by the state, of which there are few.

Still, the request undoubtedly increases the pressure on the Cuomo administration to release the full tally of nursing home deaths — and draws new attention to its refusal to do so.

The Cuomo administration argued that the probe is … you’ll notice a trend here … politically motivated, describing it as “nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention.”

The governor could be right. But that doesn’t negate that the Justice Department is seeking information Cuomo should have released long ago, data that’s crucial for understanding why so many New York nursing home residents died of COVID-19 as the state prepares for a potential second wave.

“To make good policy, we need accurate information,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the Health Committee. “We all know how essential it is to make sure we get this right.”

Rivera has pushed the Cuomo administration for an accurate count of the state’s nursing home toll, but, like the rest of us, has yet to receive the numbers. When I spoke with Rivera last week, he was growing frustrated by the gubernatorial foot dragging and secrecy.

“Maybe they should worry more about getting us accurate information than writing a damn book,” Rivera said, referring to the COVID-19 memoir Cuomo is set to publish in October. “It seems like this administration is bucking the facts to make themselves look better. But I’m sure there will be an entire chapter in the book about how I’m wrong.”

The Department of Health has repeatedly promised to release the full count of nursing home deaths. But somehow, as the weeks and months go by, the data is never quite ready. “We’re still working on it,” DOH spokesperson Jill Montag told me Wednesday.

They’re still working on it? No, they’re hiding the truth — or, as the Associated Press put it, keeping New York’s nursing home death toll “cloaked in secrecy.”

But that was before the Justice Department made its announcement, which stressed that protecting the rights of nursing home patients and other vulnerable populations is one of the country’s most vital obligations. I don’t know how anyone could disagree with that.

Nor do I know how anyone could justify Cuomo’s refusal to release accurate data. It shouldn’t take the Justice Department to pry the truth loose.

Correction: An earlier version of this column said New York’s official tally of nursing home deaths is the highest of any state. New Jersey’s official tally is higher, although its statistic includes nursing home residents who died at hospitals. Also, this column was updated to reflect that the Department of Justice inquiry may only apply to public nursing homes.

Chris Churchill is a Times Union opinion columnist. Click here to subscribe to his newsletter.

[email protected] ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill

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