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New York Law Gives Nursing Homes Protection In COVID-19 Death Suits

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are calls for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign. A report by state Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat, found that his administration deliberately undercounted the actual numbers of deaths that occurred in nursing homes. The actual percentage may be as much as 50% higher. An FBI investigation is underway, and many families want to sue nursing homes for negligence, but a law in New York state gives nursing homes, hospitals and other care facilities liability protection from coronavirus death suits.

Tracey Alvino (ph) is the assistant director of VoicesForSeniors, an advocacy group for the elderly in nursing homes. She also lost her 76-year-old father to COVID after he was in a rehab senior care facility in Long Island. Ms. Alvino joins us from Babylon, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

TRACEY ALVINO: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: We're sorry for your loss. Can I just get you to begin by telling us a bit about your father?

ALVINO: Well, one word to describe my father, Danny Alvino, is loud (laughter). He had a big, booming voice. He had a huge laugh. He was infectious to be around. Every day, I would make a cup of coffee and sit with him. And he'd either be watching a war documentary or a sports show. And we'd sit together and catch up. And now I don't have that anymore, and I miss him terribly.

SIMON: Noting again how sorry we are for your loss, why do you hold the senior care center responsible?

ALVINO: He was put into a nursing home for rehabilitation after neck surgery. And he would call to tell us horror stories of the neglect that he was experiencing. He would sit in his waste for hours on end. He was made to eat with his face down in a dish like a dog because the facility was overwhelmed and understaffed. And he started to get scared. And he described a very chaotic scene. He heard ambulances. He heard coughing. And he literally told us, if you don't get me out of here, I'm going to die.

SIMON: That's a hard thing for a family to go through. Nursing homes, as a generalization, contend that they ought to be exempt from legal action because COVID-19 was unprecedented. It was unpredictable. They did the best they could with the information they had at the time.

ALVINO: That's what they say, but this nursing home in particular echoes the stories I've heard of thousands of families now. My father started to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms around March 27 and told us that he had a fever and they were giving him oxygen. And when we called up the facility, they flat-out lied to us. And we know it's a lie now because it was in his paperwork.

Finally, on March 30, they released my father. He was terribly sick and collapsed on the driveway when we brought him home. And it was only later that we discovered, buried in an envelope from the nursing home, they had labeled him a COVID suspect. So they didn't treat him. They didn't test him. They didn't tell us. And as a result, my whole entire family was exposed to COVID-19, and we all became sick.

SIMON: As you see it, Ms. Alvino, do you have any legal options?

ALVINO: So we have consulted an attorney. And as far as suing for COVID, we're not having a lot of luck because Governor Cuomo snuck a little provision into the budget in early April of last year. That provision basically gave nursing homes or any health care facilities blanket immunity.

SIMON: And about half the states in the country have some kind of immunity laws, don't they?

ALVINO: Right. And, you know, I get limited immunity. We were in a pandemic. We did not know what we were dealing with. But by Cuomo and these other governors putting that safeguard into the law, it got rid of the only deterrent that us families have to protect their loved ones from neglect and abuse. And if these places are allowed to cheese out and cut corners - they're businesses. At the end of the day, it jeopardizes lives, and then they have a Get Out of Jail Free card.

Also, the Greater New York Hospital Association, which is a powerful lobbying group, donated a lot of money to Andrew Cuomo's campaigns. There's some questionable ties there for me, and I would like that to be investigated as well.

SIMON: You're in touch with other families?

ALVINO: Yes. My group, VoicesForSeniors - we have over 5,000 members. Since we have mobilized as a force, we've decided not only to try to get accountability and justice and to get retroactive immunity repeal, we want to make nursing homes better places to be going forward.

SIMON: Tracey Alvino is assistant director of VoicesForSeniors. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALVINO: Thank you for giving all of these families a voice. We really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.