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Cuomo defends nursing home policies in closed-door House hearing on pandemic

Watertown Daily Times - 6/12/2024

Jun. 11—WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took questions in a closed-door hearing of a House committee focused on reviewing the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday, part of a wider review the federal government is taking over New York's response to the crisis.

While the transcript of the hearing was not made available, Cuomo and some of New York's Republican representatives to Congress came out immediately with statements explaining their take on what was said.

Cuomo has faced continued criticism from Republicans over some of his decisions during the pandemic, from enforcing a policy that nursing homes needed to admit COVID-positive patients to his decision to publish a book about his leadership while the crisis continued to progress and some public restrictions remained in place.

Cuomo and a cohort of his top administration officials, including former Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker; Gareth Rhodes, former deputy superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services; Jim Malatras, a former adviser and SUNY chancellor; and Melissa DeRosa, his former secretary, have been called before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic to testify in closed-door sessions.

A subset of the House Oversight Committee, it was created in 2020 to review then-President Donald J. Trump's response to the pandemic, and has been maintained since Republicans took over in 2022.

A full transcript of the interview was not immediately available, and a press contact for the committee that conducted the hearing said a full transcript of Cuomo's hearing, as well as the other officials from his administration that were called, would be released at a currently undetermined time.

But Cuomo's spokesperson Rich Azzopardi released a copy of Cuomo's opening remarks to the committee. In those remarks, Cuomo said there are valid questions to be asked of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but put the blame for the failures on the Trump administration of the day.

He acknowledged the high death rate in nursing homes, which officials from his administration have admitted to under-representing at the time out of fear of political reprisal from Trump.

"To distract from their own culpability and muddy the waters, four years ago the Republican administration made many accusations and called for investigations into New York's COVID response: those investigations have concluded," he said.

Cuomo said that the U.S. Department of Justice has investigated the Cuomo administrations handling of nursing homes during the pandemic three times, as has the Manhattan District Attorney and New York Attorney General, as well as the state Assembly. The Assembly report found that the Cuomo administration had "substantially revised" their report of nursing home COVID-19 deaths in an attempt to boost his image and reputation, but did not put the blame specifically on Cuomo. The state Attorney General had initially identified that the administration had undercounted nursing home deaths by nearly half — the current estimated count is 15,000 deaths, but the Cuomo administration reported only 8,500.

But Cuomo in his opening argued that politics was more a driver of the federal investigations into nursing home policies in New York — he argued that many states got similar federal guidance from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services on nursing home admissions policies, but only four states, all run by Democrats, were targeted for investigation by the Trump era DOJ.

"I believe we can all agree that political weaponization of the Justice Department is a fundamental violation of our democratic principles and beliefs," he said. "It is unethical, illegal and an abuse of government power and resources. Ironically, I have heard President Trump make this case many times over the past few months. It's wrong when Republicans do it, and it's wrong when Democrats do it."

Cuomo also released a video address on YouTube, making many of the same arguments. He said that the pandemic is still not getting serious review and reflection, because politics and partisanship have taken center stage over the science.

"The nursing home controversy was the most destructive example of the Republicans politicization, deception and abuse of government during COVID," he said. "It was a complete fraud, and it created misconceptions that continue today."

He said that nursing homes did see some of the worst outbreaks of COVID, and some of the most tragic breakdowns during the height of the crisis, but said the situation in New York was no worse than the national average and the deaths in New York homes were not a result of state policies he directed.

"In reality, New York's nursing homes performed well in comparison to other states," Cuomo said, citing a CMS nursing home rate graph that shows New York in the lowest third of nursing home deaths per state in 2020.

Cuomo's testimony is likely to cover much more ground than his opening statement — his testimony started at 10 a.m. in a House office building in Washington, D.C., and was still ongoing by 5 p.m.

New York's House Republican members planned to host a press conference to discuss the testimony when the hearing concluded, but Rep. Claudia L. Tenney, who does not sit on the committee conducting the hearing, said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that she views him as guilty of a crime.

"Cuomo's decision to admit COVID-19 positive patients into nursing homes to protect his image and secure a lucrative book deal led to 15,000 deaths," she said. New Yorkers deserve justice for Cuomo's fatal nursing home policy and the attempts to cover it up. Today, we move one step closer to seeing this criminal behind bars."

Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, said in that after-hearing press conference that she was waived onto the committee to ask Cuomo questions, a fact that Cuomo's lawyer allegedly tried to protest. Stefanik said she asked many questions over the course of the hearing, and wrapped up by asking Cuomo if he takes responsibility for the deaths in New York under his watch.

"Despite hours and hours of trying to blame everybody else, in the final moments of the deposition, he said, ultimately as the New York Governor there is accountability for how they handle nursing homes," Stefanik said. "This is an important step. We're going to continue doing the important work of this select committee."

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