NY Comptroller: Cuomo's Health Dept. Falls Short on Nursing Home Oversight

Feb 22, 2016

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli talks about findings of a statewide audit of nursing homes during a news conference on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. State auditors say the New York Health Department has been slow to penalize nursing homes for violations, often choosing not to levy fines or taking several years to actually impose them.
Credit AP Photo/Mike Groll

The New York State Comptroller has issued an audit finding that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has dropped the ball on some aspects of policing nursing homes.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli took the unusual step of holding a press conference to highlight an audit which concludes that the Cuomo Administration is not adequately  fining or enforcing violations at nursing homes.

“Families need to know that their loved ones have safe accommodations and that providers are being held accountable when problems are found,” Di Napoli said.

The Comptroller does give credit to the health department for frequent inspections of nursing homes, and for following up on serious complaints. But the audit says the department lets other violations slide, and some nursing homes with repeated unresolved issues “escalated into more serious problems”.

The audit finds that, in the vast majority of cases where a violation occurred, the department did not issue any fines at all, and only tried to impose monetary policies when the problem resulted in actual harm to a patient or placed the patients in immediate jeopardy.

DiNapoli says that approach can also end up costing more money in the long run to patients, and to the state funded Medicaid program, which often pays for the medical care.

The audit also found that it can take as long as six years between when  a violation is cited and a fine is imposed, and the average time is four years.

The amount of total fines issued declined significantly from 2011 to 2015, even though  the legislature has authorized the health department to impose  fines of up to $10,000 for violations. In 2011, the health department levied $628,000 in fines, compared to less than $50,000 in 2015.

Richard Mollot, with the Long Term Care Community Coalition,  was one of several advocates at the announcement. He says one of the problems is that the health department is too cozy with the nursing homes, and views it’s role as more of a helper than an enforcer.

“They see themselves as assisting the providers, being there as a resource for the providers, “ said Mollot. “Rather than holding the providers accountable.”

The audit found inadequate staffing is also an issue- only one part time employee handles nursing home enforcement issues.  Gayle Meyers, with Statewide Senior Action Council, says her group often gets calls from people who have filed complaints to the health department against nursing homes, and never hear anything back.

“Why not hire sufficient surveyors?” Meyers asked.

In statements, the chairs of the Senate and Assembly health committees were also critical, and asked that the problem be resolved.

Governor Cuomo has had a contentious relationship with Comptroller DiNapoli, and in the past his spokespeople have often strongly taken issue with the Comptroller’s assessments. In this case, though, the Department of Health , in a formal response to the audit, concede that they have recognized the issues, and are taking steps to correct them.  A spokesman says in a statement that  the department implemented a new enforcement process last year to “ensure that fines are assessed in a timely manner”.  Spokesman Jim Plastiras adds that the health department is “committed to protecting the health and safety of New York’s nursing home residents”.

The Comptroller is taking a wait and see attitude toward the changes.

“It’s great to recognize when an audit is underway that folks are looking,” DiNapoli said. “But the question is  what will be the priority placed on this issue a year from now.”

DiNapoli says he’s considering a follow up audit to make sure that the health department sticks to it’s new plan.