Lawmakers call for change in state nursing home policy

Emergency medical workers arrive at Cobble Hill Health Center, Friday, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. 

Lawmaker: Nursing home watchdogs need infection reports to help protect patients

By JOE MAHONEY

CNHI State Reporter

ALBANY — With more than 3,500 New York nursing home residents having died from the COVID-19 contagion, the state should be requiring operators of the facilities to notify patient watchdogs when infections occur in those homes, a key lawmaker said Tuesday.

For years, the state has had a Long Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP), whose advocates routinely visit nursing home and have access to private patient information, according to Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee.

But those advocates have been effectively locked out of homes, along with family members of patients, as a result of measures put in place last month to halt the spread of the virus, Gottfried pointed out in latter to Paul Francis, the Cuomo administration's deputy secretary for health and human services.

The veteran lawmaker urged that nursing homes and adult care facilities be required to "frequently remind" residents, their families and their representatives that residents, under federal law, have the right to access the ombudsman program over the telephone or by email.

Gottfried also noted that while the state took appropriate steps in pointing out the obligations of nursing home operators in a recent communication, it was "distressing" that the existence of the LTCOP program was never mentioned.

"The fact that the state felt it was necessary to take this action demonstrates that there is a serious problem with facility operators and staff providing appropriate care and communication in this time of disease and isolation," Gottfried advised Francis.

CNHI provided Cuomo aides with a copy of Gottfried's letter but the governor's administration offered no comment on it.

Richard Mollot, director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a group that advocates for patients, said Gottfried's suggestions underscore the importance of the ombudsman program during New York's nursing home crisis.

Nursing home residents, Mollot said, are now "extremely vulnerable," with family members unable to visit them or monitor the care they are getting.

"We have worked with the ombudsmen throughout our 30-year history and, as far as I am concerned, their services have never been needed more than they are now," Mollot told CNHI.

New York leads the nation in the number of COVID-19 infections reported to health authorities, with nursing homes representing the largest cluster of cases.

Cuomo has authorized a state investigation into how nursing homes have acted during the pandemic, though the scope of the probe excludes the state Department of Health.

Commenting on the growing number of infections in the nursing home population Tuesday, Cuomo said the facilities have become "ground zero" for a contagion that "preys" on elderly people with compromised immune systems.

"It just takes one person, one facility person, one nurse, one orderly, one doctor, one anything to walk in there with a virus and then it is fire through dry grass in that nursing home," the governor said.

After CNHI and other news organizations raised questions about state mandate that nursing homes readmit patients who have tested positive, the Cuomo administration explained to home operators they must advise the Health Department if they are ill-equipped to care for infected residents so alternative placements can be made.

This week, a nursing home in Ulster County, Ten Broeck Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, signaled that 79 of its residents tested positive for COVID-19.

Dozens of New York nursing homes have reported multiple deaths from the virus.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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