Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent weeks has decried the criticism he has received from nursing homes during pandemic as overly politicized, part of a right-wing noise machine. But support in Albany for a bill creating an independent panel to assess what went wrong for the facilities has a purplish hue to it. 

"We owe it to these families to get the answers," said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat who represents the Mohawk Valley. "They deserve answers. When you think about what happened with COVID-19 in New York state, it's something that's being watched across the nation."

What You Need To Know

  • Gov. Cuomo has said criticism he's received on nursing homes has been politicized.

  • But calls for a nursing home investigation independent of the governor are gaining bipartisan support in the Legislature.

  • Lawmakers are frustrated they cannot get a true number of the death toll in nursing homes.

  • They say they want to know what went wrong to avoid the problems arising again in a second wave.

The measure backed by Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco and Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim would create a commission composed of appointees of the majority and minority conferences in both chambers of the Legislature. It would be led by an appointee of Attorney General Letitia James. 

Kim, a Queens lawmaker, is backing the bill after his uncle died of COVID-19 earlier this year. 

At issue in part is frustration from lawmakers when it comes to getting a firm number of the death toll in nursing homes. The official count stands at more than 6,300 nursing home residents.

But the number is likely higher given the state does not count the people who have died of COVID-19 in hospitals who were nursing home residents.

"This is the one state that did not count the number of individuals who got sick in a nursing home, went to a hospital and died there," said Tedisco, who represents the suburban Capital Region in the state Senate. "We need that information to find out what went wrong in terms of directives by the governor."

The Cuomo administration has pushed back forcefully on the nursing home criticism. 

"While 15 states do not even publicly release any long term care fatality information and in the absence of a consistent federal standard for reporting long term care data, New York was an early leader in providing daily facility-specific information," said Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health.

"New York is only one of 9 states that reports both confirmed and presumed in facility deaths and no one has been clearer in personalizing the human cost of the pandemic, which is why we required facilities to notify residents and families within 24 hours of any COVID case or fatality or face a penalty."

Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to the governor, alluded to public hearings held by the Legislature on the issue in recent weeks. 

"Though it's surreal to see Ron Kim repeat Trump's discredited talking points, last time I checked the legislature was already looking at nursing homes, so what are we even talking about?" Azzopardi said.

Cuomo in a radio interview on Wednesday said this could lead to a double count of fatalities. He's also defended his handling of how the virus affected nursing home residents, saying it is no greater than other states when compared with the overall death rate in the state.

That's been little solace, however, to family members. Janice Dean, a meteorologist with Fox News, has become a public face of the push for an independent investigation after her in-laws died of the virus within two weeks of each other earlier this year. 

"I didn't know if I would ever be in this position," Dean said Wednesday at a news conference in Albany. "But when I started listening to the news reporters and not hearing the questions asked, I thought it was important to start raising those questions on my own."

Dean and other family members who have lost loved ones want an independent investigation of what went wrong in New York nursing homes. 

"In meeting the families and talking to the families, I don't know who they voted for, I don't know what their politics are," she said, "but we share the grief and the anger sometimes in not getting the questions answered."