Watchdog Group Struggles to Get Accurate Nursing Home Death Toll

Accurate nursing home adverse incident data allows consumers to evaluate nursing home performance

Watchdog Group Urges New York to Release More Nursing Home Data on Deaths

New York’s Department of Health has come under fire for its lackluster response to requests for data on nursing homes and their residents. The Empire Center for Public Policy, a government watchdog group and think tank based in Albany, New York, has been pushing the state government to release data regarding the number of nursing home residents who have passed away—either in the homes or in hospitals—as a result of the recent pandemic.

Empire Center Sues New York to Release Data on Nursing Home Deaths Related to COVID-19

The response from health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and other relevant parties remains concerning. The Empire Center cites in a lawsuit that it had originally requested this information on August 3rd, and the health department stated that a response would be returned shortly—but it never was.

Instead, the health department replied at the end of August that a response would likely come by November 5, shortly after the election. The Empire Center alleges that this resolution violates the requirements surrounding the Freedom of Information Act, which states that information must be provided within 20 days (or a legitimate reason for delay must be provided, with a date certain that confirms when the information will be released). Claiming a “likely” return of November 5, more than 20 days later and without certainty, is not sufficient.

A Consistent Issue of Concealing the True Death Toll

Across the nation, nursing homes continue to hide behind a veil of undisclosed information that can make their treatment of residents and overall care quality difficult to track. The distorted picture presented by nursing homes can downplay how serious repeat violations are, how many individuals pass away as a result of preventable injuries or illnesses, and even how critical staffing levels are.

New York, the state currently under the most scrutiny for this process, has been using its Health Emergency Response Data System, or HERDS, to track the development of nursing homes’ response to increased patient load and contagious illness. Within this database is all the relevant information requested by the Empire Center, logged daily by nursing homes. However, health commissioner Zucker refused to publicize the information despite acknowledging that it is available, saying, “I wish I could give you the number today, but I need to be sure it’s absolutely accurate.” This contradicts the Freedom of Information response citing the need for a “diligent search” before data can be released.

Continued Delays and Obfuscation

On September 18, the Empire Center moved forward with a lawsuit against the health department for failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. As of late October 2020, information still has not been provided, and the Empire Center has called on a growing number of individuals to join the suit. One such man is state senator James Tedisco.

Tedisco elected to file a brief supporting Empire Center’s lawsuit in an effort to pressure the health department into giving up the data. Gary Holmes, speaking on behalf of the health department, noted Tedisco’s actions and remarked, “The importance of accurate and reliable data to drive smart public health decisions is paramount, and this data will be released once our comprehensive review is complete.”

Tedisco and Sue Serino, two Republican state senators, are now calling on their Democratic colleagues to subpoena the health department to force the release of information. Four Democrat-controlled Senate committees have requested similar information from Zucker, who has still refused to comply, even in light of a three-week deadline imposed by one of the committees.

Why Accurate Numbers of Nursing Home Deaths and Adverse Events Matter

As New York nursing home abuse attorneys, we applaud the Empire Center’s efforts to hold companies accountable by demanding accurate death numbers.

The resolution of this request for information could have wide-reaching impact, not only across New York, but across the country. It may prompt a reevaluation of how data on nursing homes is kept and disseminated. Now is the time to support better disclosure of information so that residents in nursing homes in all 50 states can see better, more transparent care that protects them from preventable issues like bedsores, falls and medication mistakes.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said famously, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If we take accurate numbers out of the dark and into the public view, we can honestly and objectively evaluate our nation’s healthcare facility’s performance.

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