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Gov. Cuomo’s coronavirus nursing home scandal: 5 things to know
New Yorkers are still adapting to the new normal nearly one year after the Empire State was effectively shut down – if not significantly slowed down – amid concerns surrounding the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But even as time passed and certain lifestyle changes – face masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing – have become daily habits, long-asked questions still loom in relation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to certain aspects of the pandemic.
Namely, some officials and the public have criticized the Cuomo administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes – and the data surrounding those circumstances. A scathing report from New York Attorney General Letitia James describes how the governor’s office may have undercounted the number of COVID-linked nursing home deaths by more than 50%.
And one of the biggest bombshells arose late Thursday, when the New York Post revealed that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted during a conference call with Democratic leaders that the administration hid unfavorable information about the state’s nursing home COVID-19 deaths out of concern that it “was going to be used against us.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the more important events or details of Cuomo’s nursing home scandal:
1. COVID-19 DATA
The first-known infection in the state was discovered March 1 in a health care worker who recently returned from Iran. Two days later, the state got its second case, a lawyer from the suburb of New Rochelle.
By March 10, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had declared a “containment area” in New Rochelle that shuttered area schools and houses of worship. That same day, the metropolitan area saw its first fatality: a man who worked at a harness track in Yonkers and lived in New Jersey.
By March 12, the state had banned all gatherings of more than 500 people, darkening Broadway theaters and sports arenas. A day later, the first New York resident died, an 82-year-old woman with emphysema.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio closed New York City’s schools March 15.
More severe restrictions came March 20, when Cuomo ordered all nonessential workers to stay home, barred gatherings of any size and instructed anyone out in public to stay at least 6 feet from other people. At the time, only 35 New Yorkers had been killed by the virus.
By the end of March, New York’s death toll from the outbreak surpassed 1,000.
As of Friday, there were 1,522,785 cases reported in New York, and 45,597 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.
According to a Thursday report from The Associated Press, more than 9,000 recovering COVID patients in the Empire State were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic under a controversial directive from Cuomo’s administration.
The new number of 9,056 recovering patients sent to hundreds of nursing homes is more than 40% higher than what the state health department previously released. And it raises new questions as to whether a March 25 directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge the state disputed.
2. POLICY STIRS CONTROVERSY
The Cuomo administration’s March 25 directive barred nursing homes from refusing people just because they had COVID-19. It was intended to free up space in hospitals swamped in the early days of the pandemic. It came under criticism from advocates for nursing home residents and their relatives, who said it had the potential to spread the virus in a state that at the time already had the nation’s highest nursing home death toll.
In its reply to an AP freedom of information request from May, the state health department this week released two figures: a previously disclosed count of 6,327 admissions of patients directly from hospitals and a new count of 2,729 “readmissions” of patients sent back from a hospital to the nursing home where they had lived before.
Before the state released any data, the AP conducted its own survey and found at least 4,500 such patients.
State health officials contend that asymptomatic nursing home employees, not recovering COVID-19 patients, were the driving factor in nursing home outbreaks. And they have repeatedly noted that by law, nursing homes weren’t supposed to accept anyone they couldn’t adequately care for.
“At least 98% of nursing home facilities in the state had COVID in their facility before their first admission or readmission, and as we’ve seen across the nation, the major driver of infections appears to be from asymptomatic staff through no fault of their own,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker in a statement to the AP.
He added that the March 25 directive followed federal guidance, and that the percentage of coronavirus deaths statewide that happened in nursing homes didn’t change from the spring to the fall — after the directive was reversed.
3. STATE HEALTH DEPARTMENT DATA RELEASED
In July, an internal report from within Cuomo’s office found his March 25 directive that sent thousands of recovering coronavirus patients into nursing homes was “not a significant factor” in the outbreak, stirring criticism.
Scientists, health care professionals and elected officials assailed the report released in the beginning of July for flawed methodology and selective stats that sidestepped the actual impact of the March 25 order, which by the state’s own count ushered more than 6,300 recovering virus patients into nursing homes at the height of the pandemic.
Some also accused the state of using the veneer of a scientific study to absolve the Democratic governor by reaching the same conclusion he had been floating for weeks — that unknowingly infected nursing home employees were the major drivers of the outbreaks.
The report contended the virus’ rampant spread through the state’s nursing homes was propelled by more than 20,000 infected home staffers, many of whom kept going to work unaware they had the virus in March and April. Another 17,500 workers were infected through early June.
The 33-page state report flatly states: “that nursing home admissions from hospitals were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.” But the Cuomo administration didn’t release how exactly they reached the report’s conclusions, which backed up Cuomo’s repeated defenses.
The report noted that the number of residents dying at nursing homes peaked on April 8, around the same time as COVID-19 deaths statewide, but nearly a week before the peak of coronavirus patients being transferred from hospitals.
It also said 80% of the 310 nursing homes that admitted coronavirus patients already had a confirmed or suspected case among its residents or staff before the directive was issued. And it contends the median number of coronavirus patients sent to nursing homes had been hospitalized for nine days, the same period that the study said it likely takes for the virus to no longer be contagious.
Some subsequently accused the state of using the veneer of a scientific study to absolve the Democratic governor by reaching the same conclusion he had been floating for weeks — that unknowingly infected nursing home employees were the major drivers of the outbreaks.
4. CUOMO GETS BOOK DEAL, EMMY
Cuomo said in August he would be releasing a book in which he reflected on his experience with pandemic so far, and offered leadership advice and a glimpse into his relationship with then-President Donald Trump.
Crown released Cuomo’s “American Crisis” in October.
“In his own voice, Andrew Cuomo chronicles in ‘American Crisis’ the ingenuity and sacrifice required of so many to fight the pandemic,” according to Crown, “sharing his personal reflections and the decision-making that shaped his policy, and offers his frank accounting and assessment of his interactions with the federal government and the White House, as well as other state and local political and health officials.”
Cuomo was praised over the course of several months before his book release, while also facing criticism for the high number of deaths at New York nursing homes.
He had said in July he was thinking of a book, commenting during a radio interview on WAMC that he wanted to document the “entire experience, because if we don’t learn from this then it will really compound the whole crisis that we’ve gone through.”
Months later, in November, it was revealed that he would receive an International Emmy award for his once-daily televised briefings regarding COVID-19 in the state.
The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, whose members include media and entertainment figures from over 60 countries and 500 companies, announced at the time that Cuomo was being honored with the academy’s Founders Award for using his briefings to inform and calm the public. Previous recipients include former Vice President Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey, and director Steven Spielberg.
5. SCATHING AG REPORT LEADS TO DEFLECTION, BOMBSHELL ADMISSION
Data released in late January showed New York may have undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by more than 50%, solidifying previously reported concerns regarding the Empire State’s pandemic response at such facilities.
A 76-page report released by James’ office on Jan. 28 found New York State may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by thousands – backing up the findings of an Associated Press investigation last year that focused on the fact that New York is one of the only states in the nation that count residents who died on nursing home property and not those who later died in hospitals.
The method of counting allowed Cuomo to boast that his state had a lower percentage of nursing home deaths compared to other states.
But such an undercount would have meant the state’s official tally of 8,711 nursing home deaths to the virus was actually more than 13,000, boosting New York from No. 6 to highest in the nation.
“While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves,” James said in a statement at the time.
Cuomo later told reporters that “everybody did the best they could.”
“It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, it’s that this became a political football, right?” Cuomo noted during the press conference. “Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home … people died. People died. … By the way, the same people are dying today.”
The AP analysis in August concluded that the state could be undercounting deaths by as much as 65%, based on discrepancies between its totals and numbers being reported to federal regulators. That analysis was, like James’ report, based on only a slice of data, rather than a comprehensive look.
James’ investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities. One unnamed facility, for example, had an official death toll of 11 but the attorney general’s probe found that 40 had actually died.
The report from James, a fellow Democratic official, undercut Cuomo’s frequent argument that the criticism of his handling of the virus in nursing homes was part of a political “blame game,” and it was a vindication for thousands of families who believed their loved ones were being omitted from counts to advance the governor’s image as a pandemic hero.
But then, late Thursday, Secretary to the Governor DeRosa, his top aide, revealed during a recent conference call that the Cuomo administration hid unfavorable information about the state’s nursing home COVID-19 deaths out of concern that it “was going to be used against us,” the New York Post first reported.
Speaking to Democratic leaders during a recent conference call, DeRosa said the governor’s office officials “froze” after then-President Donald Trump turned the pandemic into “a giant political football” and began tweeting about the state’s shoddy handling, according to the report.
“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa reportedly said. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer.”
Trump then instructed the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state’s response, she continued.
“And basically, we froze,” she reportedly said. “Because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”
She reportedly added: “That played a very large role into this.”
According to the Post, DeRosa asked the group for “a little bit of appreciation of the context.”
“So we do apologize,” she said, according to the report. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans.”
She released a public statement on Friday, in which she tried to clarify her statements and wrote: “I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time.”
“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout,” she said, in part. “As I said on the call with legislators, we could not fulfill their requests as quick as anyone would have liked.”
Cuomo gave immunity to nursing home executives after big campaign donations.
As Governor Andrew Cuomo faced a spirited challenge in his bid to win New York’s 2018 Democratic primary, his political apparatus got a last-minute boost: a powerful healthcare industry group suddenly poured more than $1m into a Democratic committee backing his campaign.
Less than two years after that flood of cash from the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), Cuomo signed legislation last month quietly shielding hospital and nursing home executives from the threat of lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. The provision, inserted into an annual budget bill by Cuomo’s aides, created one of the nation’s most explicit immunity protections for healthcare industry officials, according to legal experts.
Critics say Cuomo removed a key deterrent against nursing home and hospital corporations cutting corners in ways that jeopardize lives. As those critics now try to repeal the provision during this final week of Albany’s legislative session, they assert that data prove such immunity is correlating to higher nursing home death rates during the pandemic – both in New York and in other states enacting similar immunity policies.
New York has become one of the globe’s major pandemic hotspots – and the center of the state’s outbreak has been nursing homes, where more than 5,000 New Yorkers have died, according to Associated Press data.
Those deaths have occurred as Cuomo’s critics say he has taken a hands-off approach to regulating the healthcare industry interests that helped bankroll his election campaign. In March, Cuomo’s administration issued an order that allowed nursing homes to readmit sick patients without testing them for Covid-19. Amid allegations of undercounted casualties, the governor also pushed back against pressure to have state regulators more stringently record and report death rates in nursing homes.
And then came Cuomo’s annual budget – which included a little-noticed passage shielding corporate officials who run New York hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities from liability for Covid-related deaths and injuries.
GNYHA – a lobbying group for hospital systems, including some that own nursing homes – said it “drafted and aggressively advocated for” the immunity provision. The new law declares that top officials at hospital and nursing home companies “shall have immunity from any liability, civil or criminal, for any harm or damages alleged to have been sustained as a result of an act or omission in the course of arranging for or providing healthcare services” to address the Covid-19 outbreak.
Prior to the budget language, Cuomo had already temporarily granted limited legal immunity to doctors and nurses serving on the medical frontlines. But the carefully sculpted passage buried in the state’s annual spending bill expanded that by offering extensive immunity to any “healthcare facility administrator, executive, supervisor, board member, trustee or other person responsible for directing, supervising or managing a healthcare facility and its personnel or other individual in a comparable role”.Advertisement
New York is now one of just two states to shield those corporate officials from both civil lawsuits and some forms of criminal prosecution by the government, according to an analysis by Syracuse University law professor Nina Kohn and the University of Houston’s Jessica L Roberts.
“New York is an outlier and has the most explicit and sweeping immunity language,” Kohn said.
Cuomo’s administration said the new immunity provision – which is a narrow version of a broader proposal championed by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell – is necessary.
“This pandemic remains an unprecedented public health crisis and we had to realign New York’s entire healthcare system, using every type of facility to prepare for the surge, and recruiting more than 96,000 volunteers – 25,000 from out of state, to help fight this virus,” said Cuomo’s senior adviser Rich Azzopardi in an emailed statement. “These volunteers are good samaritans and what was passed by 111 members of the legislature was an expansion of the existing Good Samaritan Law to apply to the emergency that coronavirus created. If we had not done this, these volunteers wouldn’t have been accepted and we never would have had enough frontline healthcare workers.”
Democratic assemblyman Ron Kim said that “the language of the [immunity] bill and the entire proposal was drafted, submitted, and negotiated into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his staff”. He is leading 14 New York lawmakers in pushing legislation to repeal the language – and some of them assert that the immunity provisions are linked to higher death rates in nursing homes.
“It is now apparent that negligence by administrators and executives of nursing homes has occurred at an extraordinary degree,” proponents of the legislation argued in a memo accompanying the bill. “[The immunity law] egregiously uses severe liability standards as a means to insulate healthcare facilities and specifically, administrators and executives of such facilities, from any civil or criminal liability for negligence. Repealing this article is a much-needed step to holding healthcare administrators accountable and doing everything possible to stop even more preventable deaths from happening.”
GNYHA has framed its push for liability protections as an effort to defend workers. In a 2 April memo to its members, the association wrote: “You and your heroic workers have enough to agonize over without having to worry about liability for decisions and actions made under extraordinarily challenging circumstances.”
By contrast, opponents of the legislation contend that Cuomo’s language immunizing executives from civil and criminal litigation is designed to make it easier for nursing home corporations to profit off unsafe business practices.
“The reason why neglect happens in nursing homes is executives make business decisions that result in the frontline workers not having the tools – in nursing homes, the manpower – to deliver the services those workers are trained to deliver,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Andrew G Finkelstein, a managing partner at Jacoby & Meyers.
“These executives choose how much staffing will be in a nursing home and they know the more staffing that they put in, the more safe the nursing home will be – but the less profits they will make,” Finkelstein said. “When you remove their liability from that choice, the net effect will be less and less staffing and more and more neglect in nursing homes, because those decision-makers will know there will be no legal consequences for the decisions they make.”
Immunity followed $2.3m in campaign cash
The immunity provision in Cuomo’s budget came 18 months after the GNYHA delivered $1.25m to the Cuomo-controlled New York State Democratic committee that was supporting the governor’s re-election bid. The money went to the committee’s so-called housekeeping account. The account, which can accept unlimited donations, is meant to support general party activities but has also been used to promote Cuomo and his agenda in television ads, including in his 2018 re-election campaign.
The GNYHA donations – which were a huge increase from prior years – made the group one of the New York Democratic party’s largest contributors during Cuomo’s campaign. Three of the hospital association’s top officials separately gave more than $150,000 to Cuomo’s campaign between 2015 and 2018.
In all, during the governor’s second term, Cuomo’s campaign and his state party committee raked in more than $2.3m from hospital and nursing home industry donors and their lobbying firms, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Azzopardi said the Cuomo administration’s decision to insert the language into the budget was not a reflection of lobbyists’ influence.
“This law was intended to increase capacity and provide quality care, and any suggestion otherwise is simply outrageous,” he said.
Big lobbying contracts
GNYHA paid $60,000 to the MirRam Group in March and April, according to the firm’s report. John Emrick, a lobbyist at the firm who previously served as the chief of staff for the controversial Independent Democratic Conference state senate caucus, disclosed lobbying the Senate majority leader’s office on “safe staffing” and “medical malpractice”.
Another GNYHA lobby firm is Bolton-St Johns, which gave Cuomo’s campaign $40,000 during his 2018 re-election. That firm employs Giorgio DeRosa, Joseph DeRosa, and Jessica Davos – the father, brother and sister of Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who is secretary to the governor. Giorgio DeRosa is described on Bolton’s website as a partner and the firm’s “chief Albany lobbyist”. GNYHA pays the firm $24,000 a month to lobby on “budget/appropriations” issues, according to state records.
The governor’s office has said Melissa DeRosa has been “strategizing with hospital leadership and business executives across the state to ensure frontline workers have the resources they need”.
While Azzopardi acknowledged in an email that Giorgio DeRosa’s firm lobbies for GNYHA, he said: “This law was intended to increase capacity and provide quality care, and any suggestion otherwise is simply outrageous. Also: Melissa did not negotiate this bill, nor did anyone at that firm lobby on it.”
Giorgio and Joseph DeRosa were listed as lobbyists in GNYHA state disclosures for many years, including when Melissa DeRosa was serving as Cuomo’s chief of staff. As of mid-2017, the DeRosas have no longer been listed as lobbyists on the association’s disclosure forms.
Bolton-St Johns spokesperson Justin Berhaupt said in an emailed statement that “Giorgio DeRosa has never worked on issues related to GNYHA.
“Historically, Bolton St Johns registered all of its lobbyists for all of its clients,” Berhaupt explained. “Upon Ms DeRosa becoming secretary to the governor, Bolton St Johns changed its policy and only registered Bolton St Johns’ lobbyists for the specific clients they served.”
GNYHA spokesperson Brian Conway said in an emailed statement: “GNYHA does not lobby on behalf of nursing homes.” He added: “When GNYHA lobbied for Covid-19-related immunity for hospitals and their workforce, we did not involve Bolton-St Johns.”
Since receiving large hospital and nursing home campaign donations, Cuomo has supported other legislation backed by those industries. His administration backed New York’s first increase of Medicaid reimbursement rates in more than a decade, which is expected to deliver a windfall to private healthcare facilities.
During his re-election campaign, Cuomo promised that he would support requiring hospitals and nursing homes to spend more on staffing, which proponents said would improve healthcare and safety, but could also reduce corporate profit margins. The governor subsequently only initiated a study of the issue – a move that the nursing home industry’s lobbying group lauded.
People are 7.5 times more likely to die from Covid-19 in states with corporate legal immunity
As New York’s state legislative session draws to a close this week, 14 Democratic legislators in Albany are sponsoring a bill to repeal Cuomo’s corporate immunity law. In pushing for a vote on the legislation, bill author Kim is circulating a report to other lawmakers that he says shows that liability shields are linked to higher nursing home death rates.
To date, 19 states have enacted some form of immunity for hospitals and nursing homes during the pandemic. Based on data reported by the New York Times, Kim’s analysis asserts that more than three-quarters of total nursing home deaths from Covid-19 come from states that have granted corporate immunity to healthcare facilities.
The analysis found that “of the 10 states with the highest fatality rates, eight have corporate immunity and represent 93% of all fatalities, or 63,187 deaths”. The report also says the data show that “states with corporate immunity saw more than three times the absolute number of fatalities than states without such immunity. The average rate of death per state is 7.5 times higher in states with corporate immunity than states with no immunity for corporations.”
In all, the report concludes: “77% of total deaths come from states that gave immunity to corporations who owned nursing homes and healthcare facilities; moreover, 76% of total nursing home deaths come from states that have legal immunity status for these facilities.”
Giving immunity to corporations in care work before the apex of a pandemic leads to higher fatalities
“Simply put, people are 7.5 times more likely to die from Covid-19 in states with corporate legal immunity,” Kim said. “Giving immunity to corporations in care work before the apex of a pandemic leads to higher fatalities. It is clear that businesses, especially nursing homes that interface with Covid-19 positive individuals, are less compelled to implement proper procedures that save lives.”
Azzopardi disputed the report’s findings, calling it a “flaming hot pile of bad math and inaccurate, skewed metrics”. He said the report initially overstated the per-capita death rate in the state’s nursing homes, and he questioned whether it accounts for the fact that other states may share less information than New York.
“The reality is the states cited happened to also be mainly those hardest hit east coast states that received the 3 million travelers from Europe, which brought the virus here for weeks after travel from China was blocked, greatly helping the west coast,” Azzopardi said.
‘The industry gets caught with its pants down … we’re now telling them they don’t have to wear pants’
Azzopardi asserted that the new immunity law “builds on NY Good Samaritan laws which say that if you provide medical help to someone at the scene of an accident in an emergency you are immune from suit”.
But some legal experts counter that the new provision represents a significant departure from the state’s longstanding laws.
Prior to the change, New York statutes went out of their way to declare that nursing home companies and their executives are liable for corporate misconduct. In one high-profile class action case in central New York last year, a judge denied James Square nursing home’s motion to shield owners and shareholders from liability over allegations that the company’s cost-cutting measures endangered patients.
“I don’t have a problem with giving frontline workers immunity, it is the people who make the business decisions that kill people – they are the ones who have to be held personally responsible,” said attorney Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, who represented James Square residents in their successful suit, which ultimately forced the company to spend more money to increase staffing at the facility. “Many of the corporate owners are just trying to make money – they don’t care about the elderly people in their custody, and if you take them off the hook, they are going to do the absolute minimum, which risks lives.”
Under Cuomo’s new liability shield law, that kind of ruling may be harder to secure at a time when the Trump administration has been reducing fines against nursing home operators and is now suspending safety enforcement during the pandemic.
“We’ve had a longstanding problem holding nursing homes responsible, because if you look at government enforcement, it’s typically a slap on the wrist. A private lawsuit is often all you have left to hold a nursing home accountable,” said Syracuse University’s Kohn. “Granting immunity sends a terrible message for the future. The industry gets caught with its pants down during the crisis, and we’re now telling them they don’t have to wear pants.”
They could sue but now because of this immunity they cannot As they push to expand immunity laws across the country, the hospital and nursing home industries have continued to cast their campaign as a necessary defense of medical workers.
“As our care providers make these difficult decisions, they need to know they will not be prosecuted or persecuted,” said an emblematic letter from industry groups pressing California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, to issue an executive order shielding them from legal liability.Advertisement
And yet Kohn’s research shows that 16 out of the 19 states that created liability protections extended immunity to both individual workers and nursing home facilities as a whole. New York – unlike many other states – explicitly extended the immunity to company executives and corporate board members who are not on the frontlines, but who are making key budget and staffing decisions that affect workers and patients.
Kim says that the expansion beyond healthcare workers is not an accident – he said it deliberately “discourages medical staff and frontline workers in nursing homes from safely coming out against malpractices they might observe from executive leadership”.
That assertion was echoed by University of Wyoming law professor Michael Duff, one of the nation’s leading experts on workplace law. He said that while the change does not modify traditional workers’ compensation protections for hospital or nursing home employees, it could reduce the legal rights of contract workers to demand better safety protections at precisely the moment that healthcare facilities are outsourcing work to third-party staffing firms.
“Often medical personnel in operating rooms and emergency areas are contracted out [and] the same often goes for groups like janitorial services,” said Duff, a former National Labor Relations Board investigator. “Ordinarily, employees of the institutions would be unable to sue because of workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. But independent contractors aren’t bound by that rule. They could sue but now because of this immunity they cannot.”
For its part, the Cuomo administration has struck a defiant tone. During a televised press conference this weekend, DeRosa suggested that New York’s nursing-home casualty rates are not anomalously high – and she argued that the state’s “confirmed” death rates are in line with other states, though others have asserted that the state has been undercounting nursing home casualties.
Meanwhile, Cuomo has enlisted titans to lead a 15-member commission focused on “reimagining” New York and its public policies. Among the panel members is Northwell Health’s CEO, Michael Dowling, whose company operates two New York nursing homes where there have been Covid-related deaths.
Northwell Health is a member of the hospital association that lobbied for the immunity provisions, and Dowling is a Cuomo donor.
Andrew Cuomo Uses Budget To Cut Medicaid, Settle Political Scores
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has struck a deal with state lawmakers to enact a budget that cuts billions of dollars a year from the state’s Medicaid system and other social programs, and punishes his political enemies in the progressive Working Families Party.
Cuomo, whose daily press conferences about the COVID-19 pandemic have turned him into a national media darling, had endured some pushback in recent days for his plan to take $2.5 billion a year out of the Medicaid program. As they were initially structured, the cuts would have made the state ineligible for $6.7 billion in emergency federal assistance for the state’s Medicaid program for the duration of the pandemic, since the money requires states to preserve existing program standards and eligibility guidelines.
At the very end of Cuomo’s press conference on Thursday, though, Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, announced that they had found a solution: Putting a delay on the cuts until after the pandemic crisis passes so the state can get its share of federal money and slash the program later.
A state panel’s recommended Medicaid reforms, including major cuts, “are part of the budget and will be enacted,” Mujica said. “We have the ability to delay them in the budget, so the effective dates can be changed.”
Cuomo’s budget cuts stem at least in part from the revenue that the state expects to lose due during the pandemic-spurred economic slowdown. Mujica projects a revenue decline of between $9 billion and $15 billion this coming fiscal year due to COVID-19-related economic fallout.
The plan for Medicaid cuts includes $400 million in reduced payments to hospitals, tighter eligibility for certain long-term care benefits and a massive shift in costs to the state’s county governments, the financial strength of which varies greatly.
The new budget will also maintain current levels of state education funding, which activists consider a de facto cut since the costs of schooling rise every year. For example, the impoverished Rochester school district has already announced that it plans to eliminate 236 jobs in order to fund the coming school year.
Leaders of progressive organizations that advocate for the state’s working-class and low-income residents were furious with Cuomo, arguing that it demonstrated the emptiness of the leadership he has sought to project since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a disaster,” said Jess Wisneski, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York, a progressive community activism group. “He just doubled down on the disinvestment in our communities at a time when, in the past month, there was an opportunity to pivot to make the government work for people who were already in crisis, and now it’s crisis on top of crisis. He blew it.”
Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, which functions as a progressive faction within the broader Democratic tent, warned out-of-staters against mistaking Cuomo’s apparent “managerial competence” for a commitment to policies that will help state residents weather the crisis. “New Yorkers know full well there’s a version of our governor in the daytime and a version that directly affects our well-being, that directly affects our ability to make it out of this crisis … and that is the governor we have known for many, many years.”
Progressives’ disappointment, however, is not limited to a governor with whom they consistently clash. The Democratic leaders in the legislature ― Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie ― not only agreed to the cuts, but they also granted the governor emergency powers to adjust the budget as he saw fit in the middle of the year.
The legislature would have a narrow window to challenge any budgetary changes the governor made unilaterally, but the onus would be on them to act.
“The legislature was completely in the dark through this,” Nnaemeka said. “The value of having a blue trifecta state was completely eroded in this cycle.”
The budget legislation, which also rolls back some of the 2019 reforms restricting judges’ ability to impose cash bail on New Yorkers awaiting trial, passed in the state Senate on Thursday afternoon. The bill is expected to pass the Assembly easily before it heads to Cuomo’s desk to become law.
In the state Senate, five progressive Democrats voted against the legislation ― four of whom were elected for the first time in September 2018 with the help of the Working Families Party and its allies.
“The new crop of progressive lawmakers is really doing great,” said Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All coalition, which includes Citizen Action and many of the same labor and community groups that fund the WFP. “What we need are more like them.”
But the new budget erects barriers to the growth of the progressive movement in the state by making it harder for the WFP to qualify for a ballot line.
New York has a system of fusion voting that allows candidates for state office to run as the nominees of multiple political parties. Generally speaking, the process aims to give New Yorkers a chance to give voice to the diversity within the two main parties. For example, every election, the WFP can point to the number of state voters who voted for Democratic candidates on the WFP ballot line ― rather than the standard Democratic one ― as evidence of progressive strength within the party.
But Cuomo, who fought off a primary challenge backed by the WFP in 2018, has made it a mission to weaken the WFP. He tasked a public commission to recommend changes that would raise the threshold for third parties to qualify for a ballot line, but the state Supreme Court stopped the implementation of the rule changes in mid-March on the grounds that enacting them through a commission violated the state’s constitution.
Instead, Cuomo put the higher thresholds into the budget with the apparent blessing of Democratic leaders in the legislature. The WFP, which received 114,000 votes in the 2018 gubernatorial election, will now have to receive 130,000 votes or 2% of the total vote, whichever is higher, in both the presidential and the gubernatorial elections. (The only third party that crossed that threshold in 2018 was the Conservative Party, a ballot line used by conservative Republicans.)
The WFP is exploring opportunities to further challenge the change in court, according to Nnaemeka. Barring that, it plans to improve its registration and turnout efforts in the 2022 election in order to meet the new threshold.
HuffPost requested responses to the progressive criticisms on Thursday afternoon from spokespeople for Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, and has not received replies.
Not all of the policies in Cuomo’s budget bill anger progressives. He has included a regulation capping individual out-of-pocket spending on insulin at $100 per 30-day supply.
But progressives are disappointed in Cuomo for standing by his refusal to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents during a time of crisis.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, then-New York Gov. David Paterson (D) raised taxes on higher earners to help close a budget shortfall. Cuomo, who inherited the tax when he took office in 2011, worked with the legislature to partially undo it.
Cuomo has argued that such a tax increase would hamper economic development and could cause wealthy people to leave the state, since it already has relatively high income taxes.
Left-leaning advocates like Kink consider Cuomo’s multibillion-dollar spending on incentives for big business a much more questionable choice for the state’s budget and economy.
“The super wealthy still have a ton of money, and Cuomo is acting as if they’ve been hurt as much as a laid-off restaurant worker or an Amazon worker trying to dodge the coronavirus in a warehouse,” Kink said. “He is just not connected to the economic reality the way that he is connected to the day-to-day numbers on the coronavirus.”
NY Lawmakers Gave Cuomo “Unlimited” Emergency Powers. Now Some Say It’s Time To Take Them Away
On March 3, with the threat of COVID-19 looming over New York, state lawmakers passed a $40 million coronavirus relief bill. Coupled with the aid, the fine print enabled a massive expansion of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive powers, allowing him to “suspend [specific provisions of] any statute, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, of any agency” with the stroke of his pen.
A month later, facing a massive multi-billion dollar budget shortfall as hundreds of New Yorkers died every day from the virus, the state legislature enacted a budget that allowed the governor similar expansive powers, to slash funds as he saw fit, without further consultation.
In the seven months since, Cuomo has acted unilaterally to withhold around $2.2 billion in allocated funds, including nearly 20% of funds for the City University of New York. He’s also signed more than 70 executive orders, three times more than he signed last year. Some lawmakers of both parties think it’s time to revisit Cuomo’s absolute authority.
“It’s not actually about party, it’s about excess power,” said Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat. “[The governor] has accumulated an outsized level of power over the course of his reign and during this pandemic, that has threatened the co-equal branches of our government.”
Republican State Senator Joseph Griffo, the Deputy Minority Leader, agreed.
“We need to have co-equal branches of government re-established here. You can’t just cede all your power to one branch,” he said. “I don’t believe this is partisan in any way. At this point, I think it’s now the branches of government beginning to say, ‘Hey wait a minute.’”
Both state senators point to Cuomo’s policy on nursing homes, during the course of the pandemic, that showed the fatal consequences of unilateral unchecked executive action.
First, Cuomo signed an executive order, requiring nursing homes take on COVID-19 positive patients to alleviate pressure on overcrowded hospitals, but didn’t provide them with additional staffing support, testing, or personal protective gear, which allowed the virus to spread unchecked throughout countless downstate facilities. (Cuomo’s office disputes this timeline, and the governor has insisted that nursing home deaths in the state have been “politicized” by Republicans and conservative media.)
While more than 6,600 New Yorkers died inside long-term care facilities, the true death toll remains unknown since the state has still not provided the number of residents who were sent to hospitals and died there, rather than those who stayed inside a nursing home.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, sees the Governor’s current handling of the budget crisis, withholding funds as he sees fit, rather than enacting cuts that are approved by multiple parties, as problematic.
“This is a very poor way in which to arrange a budget,” Lerner said. “Obviously there are significant budgetary shortfalls. But how these decisions are being made to underfund healthcare, to underfund education, completely opaque.”
The most recent state report on the budget shows $2.2 billion in withheld funds from various agencies, including $440 million for higher education, $325 million for transportation, $324 million for education and $279 million for health care, $179 million for housing and human services.
“Nobody is suggesting the health emergency has passed, but our system is one that does not give the executive unlimited, absolute power,” Lerner said.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, balked at the potential revocation of Cuomo’s emergency powers, which don’t expire until next April.
“We’re moving heaven and earth to further stop the spread of this pandemic and prevent a second wave any way we can,” he said. “To their credit, the legislature did the right thing when granting these powers [without which] the steps to shut down and reopen New York could not have happened, and this state would not have gone from having the highest infection rate in the nation to one of the lowest.”
This week the governor’s executive powers came under bi-partisan scrutiny again, with his latest executive order threatening to withhold funding from schools that disobeyed another executive order to close if they were in red zones, and from local governments that failed to enforce it.
“Thanks to a Democrat-controlled Legislature which refuses to rescind Governor Cuomo’s unbridled, unchecked powers, today the Governor threatened to defund local governments that don’t follow his mandates,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt wrote in a statement. “It’s time to rescind the Governor’s broad emergency powers.”
Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris drew comparisons between Governor Cuomo and President Donald Trump.
Griff said while there’s growing “frustration and exasperation” from lawmakers of both parties, it’s up to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie—both Democrats—to call members back to consider a vote to revoke the Governor’s emergency powers.
“The question is whether the leaders will actually listen to the members,” he said. “They have the ability and the power.”
The offices of Stewart-Cousins and Heastie didn’t return repeated requests for comment.
FBI and U.S. attorney investigating Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home COVID cases
The FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have begun a preliminary investigation into how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration handled nursing home residents who contracted COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic, a person familiar with the matter told CBS News.
Cuomo senior adviser Richard Azzopardi said only that the Justice Department “has been looking into this for months,” adding, “we have been cooperating with them and will continue to.” The investigation was first reported by the Albany Times Union.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment.
The Cuomo administration has faced significant criticism after the state was forced to disclose that the COVID-19 death toll for nursing home residents is nearly 15,000. The state had previously said only 8,500 nursing home residents died from the virus — but that number did not include residents who died after they were taken to the hospital.
Cuomo admitted Monday that his failure to be open about the nursing home deaths fostered confusion and incorrect conclusions.
“The void we created by not providing information was filled by skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered confusion… you don’t provide the information, something will provide the information,” Cuomo said. “Most of all, the void we created allowed disinformation.”
Top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa said late last week that the administration “froze” when the data was requested in August 2020 by both state lawmakers and by the Justice Department.
“Basically, we froze because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys and what we start saying was going to be used against us,” DeRosa told Democratic leaders Wednesday.
Cuomo has also faced criticism for the state health department’s March 2020 decision to return residents with COVID-19 from hospitals to nursing homes. That order was later reversed.
Cuomo has said this was in keeping with federal guidelines at the time, when the top priority was keeping hospitals from being overrun. He said patients were only received at nursing homes if a given home verified it was able to accept them, as required by New York law.
Among the 613 nursing homes in New York, Cuomo said 365 received a patient from a hospital. He also said that 98% of the homes already had COVID-19 in their facilities.
For months last year, Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings on cable and live streams were a popular source of information about the handling of the pandemic and raised his approval ratings and political profile. But now, Cuomo is being criticized by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers — some of whom have called to end his emergency powers.
The Hospital Lobbyists Behind Cuomo’s Nursing Home Scandal
Look closely at a questionable Empire State health-care policy, and you’re liable to find the fingerprints of the Greater New York Hospital Association, the hospital and health-system trade group that is one of the most influential forces in New York politics.
A case in point is the state Health Department’s directive, issued on March 25, that compelled nursing homes to accept patients who had tested positive for coronavirus. It turns out, as the Journal reported, that this ill-conceived policy was the brainchild of the nonprofit hospital association, which pitched it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office shortly before it went into effect. In the name of easing a crisis for the association’s members, the Cuomo administration contributed to a disaster for vulnerable nursing-home residents, who died by the thousands.
This fatal misstep grew out of a remarkably tight political alliance between the governor and the trade group that has become increasingly bad for the state’s health. Its recent history began before Mr. Cuomo’s last election when, in March 2018, he browbeat the state’s Catholic bishops into giving up $2 billion in proceeds from the sale of a church-affiliated nonprofit health plan. The money went into a “Health Care Transformation Fund” to be spent at the governor’s discretion in an election year.
That summer the hospital group poured more than $1 million into Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign, which was a lot even for one of Albany’s deepest pockets. Much of the funding flowed through a loophole that would keep it secret until after his inauguration. Just before Election Day, with no advance notice, Mr. Cuomo dipped into his health-care slush fund to finance an increase in the fees paid to hospitals and nursing homes for taking care of Medicaid patients, a top lobbying priority of the hospital association.
Cuomo administration officials described it as an “across the board” boost for all facilities. But an internal Health Department analysis, obtained by the Empire Center, made clear that the rate increase was tailored to help hospital association members settle their newly negotiated contract with the health-care workers union 1199SEIU, another Cuomo ally.
By early 2019, unknown to the public, New York’s Medicaid spending was running well over its ample budget. Rather than working with the Legislature to close the gap—which might have required cutting payments to hospitals—Mr. Cuomo papered things over by secretly delaying $1.7 billion in Medicaid payments into the next fiscal year. Although the delay threw the state’s new budget out of balance, the Cuomo administration didn’t disclose what happened until weeks later, by which time the maneuver had spawned a $4 billion deficit.
Mr. Cuomo put off truly confronting the mess until early 2020, when he delegated it to a Medicaid Redesign Team of state officials and industry representatives. To lead that panel, he turned to Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling, a member of the hospital association’s board. The other co-chairman was former 1199 chief Dennis Rivera.
Those deliberations were happening when the pandemic hit. Soon, the hospital association was pushing for help in discharging patients to nursing homes, and the Health Department quickly obliged the governor’s major donors and go-to health-care mavens.
The hospital association also successfully lobbied for a last-minute budget provision to limit sharply the ability of coronavirus victims to file malpractice suits against hospitals, nursing homes and other providers—relieving the industry of a potential hit to its finances. There’s a case to be made for liability protections in a crisis, but sending patients to nursing homes was clearly a wrong move. It wasn’t the sole cause of Covid-19’s spread in New York nursing homes, but it made a bad situation worse—as Mr. Cuomo and his aides would have understood had they sought a broader range of advice.
In August, the Greater New York Hospital Association repaid Mr. Cuomo’s favors by featuring him in TV ads touting the state’s success in controlling the pandemic and assuring the worried public that hospitals are safe to use again. New Yorkers can only wonder what their governor will do for them next.
After Hospitals’ Donation to New York Democrats, a $140 Million Payout
Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised payments to hospitals at a time when Medicaid spending was already drastically over budget.
With Medicaid costs soaring in New York, the Greater New York Hospital Association was pushing for the seemingly impossible: more state reimbursement money.
It was a big ask, and for years, it had gone nowhere. Medicaid spending already represented an enormous and ever-growing share of the state budget, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had taken steps to keep the program in check.
Then things changed.
As Mr. Cuomo was locked in a bitterly fought Democratic primary last year, his campaign asked the association, one of Albany’s most influential and richest power centers, to make a major donation to the State Democratic Party, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The hospital association wrote two checks for the state party, totaling more than $1 million, campaign finance reports show. It was twice as much as the association, which represents New York City’s biggest health care institutions, had given to any campaign in at least a decade.
Soon after, the state quietly authorized an across-the-board increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates for the first time since 2008 — a move officials expect will cost the state roughly $140 million a year in extra payments to hospitals and nursing homes.
The increase in Medicaid payments underscored the power of the hospital association, whose deep pockets and long alliance with an influential union, 1199 S.E.I.U., make it a fearsome presence in Albany. The association has increasingly eclipsed real estate as the Capitol’s most influential lobbying force, as it pours funds into political campaigns; its top lobbyist is among the biggest donors in New York.
Mr. Cuomo has denied that his decisions as governor are influenced by campaign contributions. State officials said the rate increase had been contemplated for months before the donations.
“Yes, health care costs are increasing and that is not a news flash, but rather a well-documented national phenomenon that has nothing to do with politics, the weather or religion,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor. “The only news is how low our increases have been: 1.5 and 2 percent after flat funding for more than eight years.”
But the increased spending on hospitals raised questions over whether the Cuomo administration, as it provided a windfall to an influential lobbyist, ignored signs of a large and looming shortfall in the Medicaid budget: By March, the state had exceeded its budgeted allocation by roughly $1.7 billion, records show.
Rather than disclose that shortfall, officials attempted to conceal it during budget discussions in March. They then pulled off a fiscal sleight of hand, delaying $1.7 billion in scheduled Medicaid payments by three days — effectively pushing the cost to the following year’s budget.
“It’s everything that’s wrong with Albany in one ugly deal,” said Bill Hammond, a health policy expert at the nonpartisan Empire Center who first noticed the budgetary trick. “The governor was able to unilaterally direct a billion dollars to a major interest group while secretly accepting its campaign cash and papering over a massive deficit in the Medicaid program.”
Medicaid, which provides health care to those who cannot afford it, matches federal funds to state spending. New York’s program has long been among the nation’s most expensive, now reaching a total cost of more than $75 billion, and Albany shifts more of the burden to local counties than most states do.
Mr. Cuomo, from the start of his administration, took steps to reform the Medicaid system and rein in spending, including the freeze on rate hikes for hospitals and nursing homes. The efforts saw some success, with several years of declining costs per Medicaid enrollee. But recently that trend has reversed.
Spending has grown in part because people are living longer, long-term care costs are rising and there has been an expansion of the number of people covered by Medicaid, officials and analysts said. Democratic initiatives have also added costs, notably with the rise in New York’s minimum wage.
As Medicaid spending grew last year, Mr. Cuomo found himself in a tricky situation: He was facing an energetic primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who supported a “Medicare for all” plan for the state. If he were to try to crack down on Medicaid spending, he would risk alienating some Democratic voters, as well as the hospital lobby.
At the same time, insurgent Democrats were running successful primaries against longtime office holders, upending the balance of power in the State Senate.
“The politics were that the governor during the primary season was being pulled further and further to the left,” said Lev Ginsburg of the Business Council of New York State. “So at that point, he was not going to do things that were going to be unacceptable to the left.”
The governor instead found a stopgap: He negotiated a $2 billion payment to the state from the sale of a nonprofit Roman Catholic health insurance company, Fidelis, using that money to create a health care fund that he would control. Much of the money so far has gone to hospitals and other providers, in part to offset the cost of new labor contracts. (The sale is under review by the federal Medicaid agency.)
Robert Mujica, the state budget director, said the Medicaid reimbursement rate increase was directly tied to the Fidelis sale — and that he told the hospitals lobbying for the increase that it would be.
“They lobby for it every year,” Mr. Mujica said. “I was very matter of fact: If I have the money, I’ll be able to do it; if I didn’t have the money, I won’t be able to do it.”
The hospital association and the union lobbied hard for the Fidelis deal, Mr. Mujica said.
Then last August, Greater New York Hospital Association dumped more than $1 million into the housekeeping account of the State Democratic Party, which Mr. Cuomo controls.
Housekeeping accounts, which can accept unlimited donations, are, in principle, for spending related to party activities, not particular candidates. But in practice, the state party has used its account to promote the governor’s agenda. (Mr. Cuomo proposed limiting donations to the housekeeping accounts in early 2018, but the changes were not adopted.)
Because of the nature of the account, the association’s donations were not publicly disclosed until more than a month after the election. Neither Mr. Cuomo’s campaign nor the hospital association disputed that a campaign official solicited the contribution.
Brian Conway, a spokesman for the hospital association, said the donations were part of a strategy to combat “terrible health care policies from Washington, D.C.”
“The contributions were in recognition of New York Democrats’ commitment to protecting the state’s health care delivery system in the face of this federal assault, which continues to this day,” Mr. Conway said.
The Medicaid rate increase went into effect in November; the Health Department placed a short public notice on Pages 90-91 of the State Register a day before the rate increases — 2 percent for hospitals and 1.5 percent for nursing homes — went into effect.
The new spending did not cause the Medicaid budget shortfall, but it added to it, and will continue to do so in future years, budget analysts said.
“This is a really big deal,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog. “This is not just a delayed payment. It obfuscates the state’s fiscal reality.”
Mr. Mujica, the state’s top budget official, said he was not told about the Medicaid gap until late March. “My fiscal planning people came to me and said we had a Medicaid issue,” he recalled in a telephone interview.
By then, the Department of Health had already realized there was a problem, forcing the state to rely on what it calls “cash management” — paying the outstanding Medicaid bills from surplus discretionary cash in the budget.
Mr. Mujica said the governor was not told of the issue. “A payment lag of three days was not something that had to rise to that level,” he said.
Health officials disclosed the last-minute maneuver in a monthly report issued in March, adding that it was not the first time the state had done so; in recent years, the health department “managed the timing of payments across state fiscal years that ranged from $50 million to roughly $435 million,” the report said.
Around that time, with the state concerned over federal tax law changes, Mr. Cuomo did propose a major cut to Medicaid in his executive budget proposal. It was furiously opposed by the hospital association and 1199. A month later, the governor withdrew the plan. Mr. Mujica said neither he nor the governor were aware at the time of the budget shortfall.
The state still has no plan for what to do about the sharp rise in Medicaid spending, officials acknowledged.
Officials also have yet to account for the excess spending in its budget plan, raising the possibility that the payment delays could happen again next year. The monthly reports on Medicaid spending, which had been posted online, stopped appearing after March.
I believe in this posting that I have shown that Governor Cuomo has been responsible of a gross dereliction of duty while he has been in office. He is currently serving his 3rd consecutive term as governor in New York State. He is planning on running for a fourth term. Under the New York Constitution there are no term limits for the governor. I hope the residents of New York are smart enough to vote him out of office. At the very least he should be removed from office for arrogance and sheer stupidity. Who else would force nursing homes to take back recovering covid patients who were still contagious? It is my hope that during the investigations that are taking place, he will be found guilty of capital crimes. Only time will tell if he is removed from office.
foxnews.com, “Gov. Cuomo’s coronavirus nursing home scandal: 5 things to know,” By Stephanie Pagones; cbsnews.com, “FBI and U.S. attorney investigating Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home COVID cases,” By Pat Milton and Caroline Linton; the guardian.com, ” Cuomo gave immunity to nursing home executives after big campaign donations,” By David Sirota; huffpost.com, “Andrew Cuomo Uses Budget To Cut Medicaid, Settle Political Scores: The New York governor’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made him a star, but progressives say the new state budget shows his true colors,” By Daniel Marans; timesunion.com, “Cuomo 2020 lookback: coronavirus, ‘Cuomosexuals’ and nursing home deaths,” By Edward McKinley; gothamist.com, “NY Lawmakers Gave Cuomo “Unlimited” Emergency Powers. Now Some Say It’s Time To Take Them Away,” By Gwynne Hogan; empirecenter.org, “The Hospital Lobbyists Behind Cuomo’s Nursing Home Scandal,” By Bill Hammond; nytimes.com, “After Hospitals’ Donation to New York Democrats, a $140 Million Payout,” By J. David Goodman;
Cuomo 2020 lookback: coronavirus, ‘Cuomosexuals’ and nursing home deaths
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York on Sunday, March 1. The next morning, on CNN, he said “there will be community spread,” but that “there’s no reason for concern.”
Ten months later, with more than 36,000 fatalities in New York attributed to coronavirus, the world looks very different. And for New York’s 63-year-old, three-term governor, who has spent decades in politics, the limelight has never shined more brightly, or more hotly, than it did for much of this year, bringing with it adoration and aversion. In early March, the Legislature voted to give Cuomo unbridled unilateral authority to rewrite or issue laws as he sees fit. Those orders can be rescinded by majority votes of the two chambers, but they have avoided doing so even as many lawmakers have called for the governor’s powers to be reined. New York’s COVID-19 response since then has been a reflection of one man’s approach.
Beginning in late March, as New York became the nation’s epicenter for the virus, Google Trends data shows that searches for “Andrew Cuomo” peaked in the spring, dwarfing all other points in his public career. For a brief period, he was more popular on the search engine behemoth than Joe Biden, his party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency at that time. Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said that in the early weeks, it felt like “an intellectual exercise and responsibility,” kind of a puzzle of trying to keep as many people safe as possible. Then on a weekend night about a week in, sitting at Excelsior Pub after a meeting, he got a call saying two Assembly members had COVID-19 and the Capitol was shutting down. That’s when it hit home personally.
It also hit home for everyone else as the state was ordered by the governor to shut down, devastating New York’s economy and pushing millions of people out of work. Amid the shut down — which Cuomo dubbed “New York on Pause” — he faced protests from out-of-work New Yorkers and saw the state’s unemployment system become overwhelmed and backlogged as people struggled to get by.
Cuomo’s briefings continued, often picked up live on national cable news stations, and many around the country tuned in each day. People were drawn to the PowerPoint presentations, the props, his fixation on facts over opinion and his personal anecdotes. He received praise for his steadiness in the midst of a troubled time for the country.
Cuomo also selected his news outlets carefully, including appearing on his brother Chris’ CNN show and other stations where he often avoided facing tough questions. In October, as the nation continued battling the pandemic, Cuomo published a book, “American Crisis,” recounting his handling of the coronavirus response even as New York was entering a resurgence of the virus.
Azzopardi said the national fame “snuck up on us,” as the governor was giving the same kinds of presentations he has for a decade in office. With the country in a new frame of mind, Cuomo’s normal style just connected differently. “He used to get teased for the PowerPoints,” Azzopardi noted. Then this year, Cuomo won an Emmy award, and he was a finalist for Time magazine’s person of the year. Google Trends show that his popularity peaked in the last week of March into early April.
His fame launched fan clubs on social media, with his most loyal followers dubbing themselves “Cuomosexuals” and speculating about the governor’s nipple piercings amid talk of drafting him for the White House.
“Brother, you gotta find your joy where you can,” Azzopardi said with a laugh of all the weirdness. In conversations with Cuomo about these topics, he said, the governor “takes it all in stride.”
But beyond the adulation, the spotlight has also spawned harsh criticism.
In early December a former staffer of Cuomo’s, Lindsay Boylan, came forward and posted on Twitter that the governor had “sexually harassed me for years.”
Cuomo commented on her appearance, bullied her and scared people away from speaking up about it, Boylan said, adding that her experience was shared by others who were too afraid to speak up. Cuomo has categorically denied Boylan’s claims, and Boylan has avoided specifics and refused to speak to reporters about her accusations.
The Times Union obtained copies of 2018 executive chamber internal personnel records, which show that Boylan was accused of bullying and harassing behavior while she worked for the governor, which ultimately led to her resignation. Three Black women reported that Boylan had yelled at them and “treated them like children.” This led to a meeting with Cuomo’s head lawyer where Boylan offered to resign.
Boylan told the lawyer that she regretted that “her directness can be perceived in a certain, negative way (contrary to her intentions),” the records show.
Critics this year have also focused particularly on Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes in the ongoing crisis, saying the governor’s actions were what allowed the virus to spread like “fire through dry grass” through the facilities, as he had at times described it.
More than 6,500 New Yorkers in nursing homes have died of COVID-19, which Cuomo has pointed out is a smaller portion of the total number of deaths compared to some other states. Critics have countered that Cuomo’s Department of Health has only counted deaths in nursing homes, rather than people infected there who went on to die in hospitals, which they say artificially depresses the numbers.
Howard Zucker, Cuomo’s health commissioner, told the Legislature over the summer that he would provide the data showing how many people who became sick in nursing homes later died in hospitals. He has yet to do so.
Republicans in the Legislature, including state Sen. James Tedisco, a Glenville Republican, have seized on the issue, saying the governor is engaging in a “cover up” to hide the real number of nursing home deaths.
“Although he’s a very knowledgeable person and a very intelligent person, he makes the same mistake that Richard Nixon made,” Tedisco said. “You gotta give him credit, I mean, he got an Emmy for his ability to communicate to the media, to the public, but he doesn’t want to answer the tough questions in those instances.”
Azzopardi said that while the administration would have done some things differently with the benefit of hindsight — an earlier mask mandate and more of an understanding of asymptomatic spread — he attributed much of the criticism to politics.
“I really think they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. New York had to build reporting systems for nursing homes basically overnight, Azzopardi said, and there was no uniform model set by the federal government.
Both Republicans and Democrats have requested more detailed numbers on the nursing home deaths from Cuomo’s health department, which has not been forthcoming.Zucker has said the department is investigating and compiling the data, but offered no detailed explanation for the delay.
“I know if that number comes out it’s going to be an embarrassment to the governor, but some things rise above politics,” Tedisco said.
Regardless of the criticism, Cuomo’s star has risen this year. His Google search numbers are still higher than they were before the pandemic.
That popularity is demonstrated by Amy, in her 40s, who lives in Nashville and works in the auto industry. She runs a Twitter account dedicated to Cuomo’s neckties, which often feature fun patterns. Although Amy has never lived in New York, she began tuning into the briefings earlier this year while working from home. She noticed the governor’s ties, and decided to start the account.
She now is able to quickly identify exactly where the governor buys his ties based on the patterns and some quick Google searches. His favorites appear to be Vineyard Vines and Salvatore Ferragamo, she said. The account has about 1,000 followers, and she said it has had more than 270,000 total engagements in the last month alone.
“I have a journalism degree, so yeah, my professors would be proud that I’m using my research skills for a tie account on Twitter,” Amy said.
She was forced to turn off direct messages from the general public “because I was getting some weird stuff,” she said. “People would say how much they loved him, or the opposite. … It made me blush for him sometimes.”
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