NY Post: Leitner Varughese Warywoda Continues to Advocate for 15K Nursing Home Victims
Nursing home families blast Hochul for excluding victims fund in state budget
By Bernadette Hogan January 23, 2022
ALBANY – Family members who lost loved ones in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic slammed Gov. Kathy Hochul for failing to include a $4 billion victims compensation fund in her $216.3 billion state budget.
“We believe the victims compensation fund should be included in the budget as a final admission of guilt. That will give the families closure and some sense of accountability,” said Vivian Zayas, who lost her 78-year-old mother, Ana Martinez in a Long Island nursing home in April 2020.
Initially proposed last year by state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens), the 9/11-style Nursing Home Victims Compensation Fund would earmark $4 billion to families whose relatives died amid the state’s nursing home debacle at the start of the pandemic.
Kim’s bill, if passed, would serve as an alternative for families seeking accountability — with many barred from suing individual facilities thanks to a defunct state law that gave hospitals and nursing homes legal protection.
“Our family members died of no fault of their own,” said Zayas, founder of advocacy group Voices for Seniors. “They lived in the nursing homes where they put COVID-positive patients in their homes.
“If we had not been barred, we could have pursued our own accountability to sue those nursing homes, but they took that legal recourse from us. That’s why we are pursuing this fund.”
Kim’s legislation is in response to a provision included in ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2020 state budget called the “Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act,” which granted health care facilities and workers liability immunity from negligence suits during the early days of the pandemic.
The corporate immunity clause was supported by New York’s powerful healthcare lobbying group, the Greater New York Hospital Association – which has donated millions to Cuomo’s campaign in the past, according to reports.
Although that measure was eventually repealed in April 2021, it doesn’t allow lawsuits to be filed retroactively from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
Following her mother’s April 1, 2020 death, Zayas sued Our Lady of Consolation nursing home in West Islip, claiming the facility didn’t protect her mom from exposure to the killer bug. Zayas also believes the state’s repeal of the immunity provision should extend to March 2020. Her case is pending in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
Zayas and other grieving relatives-turned-nursing home advocates, including Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean, had asked Hochul to prioritize the fund’s creation during an October meeting.
“There has to be accountability for what happened to our family members in nursing homes in the spring of 2020,” Dean, who lost both of her in-laws in elder care facilities in March and April 2020, told The Post. “Gov. Kathy Hochul met with us face to face in October and promised that there would be transparency when it came to the true number of deaths and why over 9,000 COVID-positive patients were admitted into their care facilities.”
At that October meeting, Hochul apologized for the policies under her predecessor, who is accused of covering up the deaths of over 15,000 elderly residents.
But the creation of the fund failed to make it into her budget.
Brett Leitner, Zayas’ lawyer, blasted Hochul for not following through.
“The former governor took millions of dollars in donations from the millionaire nursing home owners, gave those friends blanket protection for their negligence which led to 15,000 deaths, and then tried to hide those deaths from the public,” said Leitner – referencing the past donations Cuomo’s campaign had received from the healthcare industry.
“In what appeared to be a change from the usual ‘pay-for-play’ tactics of the former administration, a few months ago, Gov. Hochul offered a formal apology to the victims’ families for the pain the former governor caused, and pledged in effect to do right by them.
“It appears this was an empty promise.”
Kim – who lost his uncle to COVID in a Queens nursing home – told The Post it’s “embarrassing” that New York has refused to pay even a cent to families so far, when New Jersey in December agreed to pay a nearly $53 million settlement to the families of 119 residents of the state’s military veteran facilities who died during the pandemic.
“I think it’s embarrassing because New Jersey already settled with the veteran nursing home families and we should be leading the country in making the families and nursing homes whole — especially because we had private conversations with [Hochul] last year,” he said.
Kim said he’s going to work on passing his legislation this session, as well as securing companion legislation in the state Senate.
Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays pointed to the governor’s work so far on combatting the pandemic — and cleaning up Cuomo’s mess.
“On her first day in office, Governor Hochul released additional nursing home data, and every day since she has worked to deliver accountability, restore trust in government, and protect vulnerable New Yorkers,” she said, noting the governor has also implemented policies to increase the vaccination and booster rate in these homes as well as the deployment of the National Guard to help with staffing issues.
“In the Governor’s State of the State and Executive Budget, she proposed a number of new initiatives to support older New Yorkers, including investments in nursing homes to improve quality of care for residents, establishing clear certification criteria for ‘memory care,’ supporting innovative nursing home models like the Green House model, combating social isolation and abuse of older residents, and strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program.”
Hochul’s budget includes a new $10 billion multi-year investment for New York’s healthcare industry. That includes a $1.2 billion bonus program for nurses and other healthcare workers.
“We will work with the legislature and advocates on these priorities to ensure the health and well-being of aging New Yorkers during the legislative session,” said Crampton-Hays.
Meanwhile, the FBI and prosecutors with the Eastern District of New York are conducting an ongoing investigation into Cuomo and his former top aides’ nursing home policies and cover up of COVID-19 deaths there.