More than 35,600 nursing home complaints flooded into New York during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first two years, as people raised concerns of neglect and other safety violations inside the facilities.
But a strikingly high number of the complaint cases, about 96%, had been deemed unsubstantiated or remained unresolved earlier this year, a USA TODAY Network New York investigation found.
State Health Department inspectors determined only about 4% of complaint cases were “substantiated,” or violated health and safety standards, according to an analysis of state data obtained via public-records request. The review looked at cases between Jan. 1, 2020 and Jan. 14, 2022.
The findings – which include newly reported details of each complaint filed against hundreds of nursing homes across New York – uncovered a backlog of complaints as COVID-19 ravaged nursing homes, killing more than 15,000 residents.
Read our investigation here:Desperate families filed nursing home complaints in New York during COVID. Thousands went unresolved
How to search COVID-era nursing home complaints in NY
Now, the USA TODAY Network is publishing the complaint data as part of its investigation, allowing people to search for complaints by facility, date, category and outcome. The information sheds new light on systemic failures of nursing home oversight and accountability during the pandemic.
State health officials declined to be interviewed as part of the reporting. They asserted in a statement that the complaint backlog was part of a national trend caused, in part, by federal policies under former President Donald Trump’s administration.
The federal measures suspended many nursing home inspections from March to August 2020 – with the exception of abuse, neglect, and immediate jeopardy concerns – to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
What New Yorkers say about nursing home complaints
A dozen people also spoke to the USA TODAY Network about their desperate attempts to protect relatives inside nursing homes.
Some of the stories ended with tragic deaths of nursing home residents following months of alleged neglect and abuse. Many of the people battled through a mix of grief and frustration as their complaints filed with health officials were dismissed or went unresolved for months.
Some of the cases included claims of calls to the state’s nursing home complaint hotline going unanswered in 2020, which state officials attributed to an “overwhelming” number of complaints at the time.
Many of the people also described contacting lawmakers and federal officials to get help, only to be referred to the state Health Department. The experiences led many of the people to become active in a mounting advocacy push seeking an overhaul of the nursing home industry in New York.
What lawmakers are doing (and not doing) about nursing home complaints
On March 31, Gov. Kathy Hochul issued an executive order that called for beginning enforcement of a 2021 state law that established minimum staffing levels for New York nursing homes.
Previously, Hochul had cited pandemic-related strains on nursing homes as justification for her issuing executive orders that repeatedly delayed enforcement of the law, which was initially to take effect on Jan. 1.
Hochul’s turnaround last month to begin enforcing the law came under pressure from nursing home worker advocates and Attorney General Letitia James.
The law requires every facility to maintain daily staffing hours equal to 3.5 hours of care per resident per day by a certified nurse aide, licensed practical nurse or registered nurse.
Hochul’s order also calls for enforcing the law’s clause that required nursing homes to spend at least 70% of revenue on direct resident care, and at least 40% of revenue on resident-facing staffing.
Now, some advocates are also calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that would establish an independent commission to investigate the state’s response to COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes.
If approved, the commission’s work would build upon several prior investigations, including one by James’ office that found former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%.
The state Assembly and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office also released two separate investigation reports detailing failures in the state’s handling of COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes.
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