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Lawmakers react to the Attorney General's nursing home report

State Senator Rob Ortt called on Dr. Howard Zucker to resign from his post as health commissioner. Crystal Peoples-Stokes says the right decisions were not made.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The New York State Attorney General's nursing home report released Thursday garnered reaction from many Western New York lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

State Senator Rob Ortt, who is also the Senate Minority Leader, issued a statement calling for the New York State health commissioner to resign.

Ortt said in-part, "For months, Governor Cuomo and his administration have refused to be transparent or take any responsibility for actions they have taken during this public health crisis -- including the deadly March 25, 2020 order to send COVID-positive patients into nursing homes. By underreporting COVID deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, the Department of Health has betrayed the public trust. To repair that broken trust, I am calling on Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to resign."

On a call with reporters Thursday afternoon, the Senator Minority Leader also had strong words about the report.

"There's no other way to put this. It is a lie. It is a lie to the people of New York State that this report has uncovered by the Attorney General," Ortt said.

State Senator Ortt said again on the call that he wants the New York State Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker, to resign.

"This is a gross dereliction of duty in the middle of the worst public health crisis that this state probably has ever seen certainly in our lifetimes, and we have an executive agency reporting directly to the governor misleading the people of New York in a variety of ways, and again, I think this could just be the tip of the iceberg," Ortt said.

Late Thursday, 2 On Your Side also spoke with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who said she didn't think it was the time to place blame but praised the Attorney General for "doing the people's work."

"This is not about blame, this is about making sure this never happens again, and so I think we need to look further into the attorney general's report, and the state health department needs to do its own total investigation into individual nursing homes more specifically," Peoples-Stokes said.

Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat, was critical of the federal government's response, however, and the little to no support they provided to states such as New York.

"We rely on the CDC, and we rely on a number of organizations that are supposed to be there for us federally. That did not happen," Peoples-Stokes added.

Assemblyman Patrick Burke, also a Democrat, shared his praise for the AG's report on Twitter late Thursday. While he commended New York's response, he said "the failures New York made in its COVID response need to be acknowledged and examined."

Peoples-Stokes said she supports holding those responsible for the mistakes highlighted in the Attorney General's report accountable but wanted to remind people that this is only the results of an *initial* investigation.

"You know, again, don't want to say this is necessarily anyone's fault, but it is our fault when people die, and they didn't have to. And so I think we do need to find solutions to make sure that doesn't happen again, and I for one look forward to working in that direction," Peoples-Stokes said.

Meanwhile, Congressman Tom Reed, a Republican, renewed his calls for a federal investigation, saying one "is desperately needed. Given the state's refusal to be transparent, we must also hold additional congressional hearings to fully understand the scope of the state's incompetence, as well as the state's efforts to obfuscate the truth. Governor Cuomo's lies cannot go on. To the New Yorkers who lost a loved one due to these failed policies, know that this is one step closer towards justice." 

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat, said in part, "We need legislative action, including bills I have introduced and supported, and others we are drafting: mandated safe staffing, data reporting, mandated spending levels for patient care, and to deal with for-profit nursing homes. The budget cuts proposed by Governor Cuomo will make this situation even worse."  

Other lawmakers also issued statements on Thursday.

State Senator Patrick M. Gallivan (R-C-I, Elma) said:

"The report issued by the Attorney General sheds a disturbing light on the true number of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes. It illustrates the lack of transparency by the governor's office and the administration's failure to adequately protect our most vulnerable residents. 

The policies and procedures put in place at nursing homes...from the deadly March 25, 2020 order to send COVID-positive patients into these facilities, to the harsh restrictions on family visitation...have caused great hardship and suffering. It is time to end the governor's unilateral control of the state's pandemic response and return to our system of checks and balances in state government." 

State Senator Sean Ryan (D, Buffalo) said:

“It should not take an investigation by the Attorney General to receive accurate information regarding nursing home fatalities during the pandemic. We need answers immediately from the Department of Health. I am calling on Dr. Zucker to appear before the Senate Health Committee and provide full and complete answers. It is what the public deserves. Today’s report from the Attorney General is a damning account of how nursing homes are operated and regulated in New York State. There was an active effort to shield the fact that nursing home residents were not safe during the pandemic – and in many instances, they were not even safe before the pandemic. The for-profit nursing home industry has complained for years that they do not need more regulations. It is clear now that the Department of Health regulators have become too cozy with for-profit nursing home operators, and it is putting the lives of workers and residents at risk. We need immediate action now to reform our nursing home industry. For years I have been calling for safe staffing legislation to project our nursing home workers and residents. We must hold for-profit nursing homes accountable.”