Key state nursing home staffing study late by months

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State health commissioner said the coronavirus is partly to blame for the missed deadline but some legislators said that excuse doesn’t fly.

The state Department of Health is nearly eight months late on a critical state study of nursing home staffing levels.

Staffing at nursing homes has long been an issue in New York, with more than 613 facilities across the state.

News 4 Investigates in January analyzed federal data that showed the state ranked in the lower 20% nationwide for nursing home staffing per resident per day.

“Staffing is by far the most important factor when it comes to a nursing home’s quality and a nursing home’s safety,” Richard Mollot, executive director of the nonprofit Long Term Care Community Coalition, told News 4 Investigates in January.

Yet, New York is one of a handful of states that do not mandate numerical staffing standards for nursing homes.

That’s why legislators asked for this study early last year.

The New York State Department of Health study will examine how staffing “enhancements” and other initiatives could be used to improve patient safety and quality of healthcare at both nursing homes and hospitals.

The study will consider the pros and cons of using minimum staffing level strategies to improve patient care and review the financial impacts to the facilities.

The health department was to commence the study on May 1, 2019, and complete its work by Dec. 31, 2019. That way, legislators could use it as a guide in drafting legislation on this topic.

But December 31 passed without a report. No report in February. Or March.

Then the coronavirus struck New York worse than any other state.

As of today, the report is still unfinished.

Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, was asked about the tardiness of the report during Monday’s 10-hour-long joint legislative public hearing on the coronavirus’s impact on nursing homes.

Zucker blamed some of the delay on the coronavirus, even though the report was due months before the state took its first steps to fight the virus.

“I promise you I’ll give you an answer to that on August 14th,” was Zucker’s response to a question about the study posed by Sen. Rachel May, a Democrat who represents the Syracuse area.

“I will have the report. I wanted to be sure that we also looked at this in the context of what has been happening. Remember, December to now the world has changed and we are now in the middle of obviously a public health crisis.”

May said the legislature wanted that report in December.

“I don’t think you can use that excuse,” she said.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican whose district stretches from West Seneca to Avon, told News 4 that he is frustrated by the delay.

“We’ve reached out to them on numerous occasions,” Gallivan said about the state health department.

“And they have indicated that it continues to be under review and I think it’s more important now more than ever when we see the staffing issues that have come about at nursing homes during this pandemic.”

More than 6,000 people have died of the coronavirus inside nursing homes.

Some legislators and nursing home experts blamed Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the death toll, pointing to his March 25 order that mandated nursing homes accept Covid-19 patients from hospitals.

The death toll is likely underreported, experts said, because New York State defined a coronavirus nursing home death as someone who physically died inside a nursing home; the state did not count those residents who contracted the disease at a nursing home, but later died at a hospital.

Cuomo eventually rescinded the controversial order.

Some legislators seemed surprised that the state health department was able to quickly complete a report that absolved the governor for any blame on the nursing home deaths as a result of his March order, but has been unable to meet the deadline on the staffing study.

“It’s critical for this report to be out so that we can take action one way or the other,” Sen. Gallivan said.

Gallivan added that the pandemic “really called attention” to the issue of whether nursing homes are sufficiently staffed.

News 4 Investigates asked the Department of Health in February about the study and was told that it was being finalized and the department was “reviewing new information that may impact the analysis and report’s findings.”

“We expect the report to be released shortly,” a health department spokesman emailed News 4 in February.

Zucker told legislators Monday that the report will now be ready Aug. 14.

Mollot, the nursing home resident safety advocate, said nursing home workers are not well paid and the jobs can be dangerous.

Therefore, the concerns about staffing at nursing homes is not a new one by any means, he said.

“If you don’t have enough staff to provide appropriate care, care with basic dignity … then don’t do it,” he said.

“If you don’t have the staff to do it or if you can’t afford it, get out of the business.”

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