ALBANY — Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate on Wednesday formally called for a thorough investigation and hearings into the state Department of Health’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes in light of the state attorney general’s recent probe.
On Jan. 28, Attorney General Letitia James released the findings of her nearly yearlong investigation into the DOH’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. Her report indicated that COVID-19 reported deaths were misrepresented. The findings left GOP leaders calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to be held accountable.
“Let’s keep pounding this drum. It’s unforgivable that the governor has not been answering our questions on this and the only way we are going to get it, and get the majority, is to have these hearings with subpoena power so we can get the information,” Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said.
Since the report’s release, Barclay has been a proponent for the state to answer why the number of COVID-19 related deaths in nursing homes was underreported, and why the information was withheld about the actual number.
Barclay said that since the attorney general’s report, the DOH has stated that there were nearly 13,000 nursing home fatalities resulting from COVID-19, prior to the report the DOH reported that nursing home deaths were substantially lower.
“The attorney general’s bombshell report is the first step to finally getting some answers for the thousands of families who lost loved ones in the state’s nursing homes,” Barclay said in a release.
In a virtual press conference held Wednesday morning, members from the New York State Senate and Assembly said why they are seeking further investigation into the matter.
“The Department of Health has betrayed the public trust in the middle of the worst public health crisis we have faced in a generation,” Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R-Tonawanda) said. “The attorney general’s report was just the tip of the iceberg.”
The report only “validated our concerns we have been voicing for many months,” Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, R-Mahopac, said.
According to Byrne, since August 2020, the GOP has been demanding that the state Senate use its subpoena powers to investigate the state’s response, but to no avail.
Republicans in both houses said they want to subpoena the complete data about nursing homes, call state officials to testify, release the communications surrounding the creation and implication of the March 25 Executive Order allowing seniors with COVID-19 to have admission to nursing homes and relinquish Cuomo of his emergency powers brought on by the pandemic.
“The administration must take full responsibility for the role the March 25 directive played in the spread of the virus in these facilities and admit their culpability,” Barclay said. “The welfare of the state can no longer be left in the hands of one man; legislative oversight must be restored.”
On several occasions throughout last year, the U.S Department of Justice requested that Cuomo release nursing home data, but he has yet to unveil the information publicly. Byrne said that the investigation that the DOJ completed in August 2020 was “too narrow of scope” and only included data from publicly run facilities, and it should be expanded.
“This has been a virus that has plagued every state throughout the country, not just New York. The federal government has an obligation here,” Byrne said. “I think the attorney general’s report only strengthens (our) call to expand that investigation.”
Throughout their attempts to investigate, Byrne said the GOP has reached out to the United States executive branch, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and introduced legislation that calls for further investigation. However, all the attempts were unable to be completed.
According to State Senator Sue Serino, the Senate Majority can get the answers but has chosen not to get the information from state officials as of yet.
“When you have the power to make a difference, it is not enough to say you will ‘consider’ the issuance of a subpoena, or the holding of a hearing, you have to set politics aside, do what is right and take action,” Serino said.
Zucker is slated to go before the GOP on Feb. 25 during a budget hearing to answer the questions raised by GOP leaders.