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Previewing major public hearings in Albany over COVID-19 response in nursing homes

A few days from now the highly-anticipated two-part public hearing on the response of nursing homes amid the Coronavirus Pandemic will take place. Ahead of that, which kicks off on Monday, New York State Sen. Pam Helming (R-54) says she will be in attendance for both.

The public hearings that are hosted by the Committees on Investigations, Aging, and Health have been split into two separate days based on geographical regions.

The first one, which is set to occur this upcoming Monday, August 3rd aims at addressing individuals and organizations within the nursing home industry from the downstate region.

Whereas, a week later, the second public hearing scheduled for Monday, August 10th shall solely address upstate New York.

Helming still plans on attending both sessions, even though the public hearings are being conducted remotely and for the two halves of the state.

The agenda, which “still remains to be seen” is getting drafted by members of the majority party among state Democrats, according to Helming.

Tomorrow afternoon, Helming shall be on-call with her fellow colleagues in the Senate to review the agenda and selected speakers, hopefully once the document becomes finally available – just a few short days away from the first public hearing.

For Helming, her conscious concern for the condition of nursing homes has been a constant ever since the 1980s, and even now as a member of the Quail Summit Senior Living Center’s Board of Directors.

“When I was working my way through college, I worked as a care aide in a nursing home. So, I worked directly with nursing home residents. I was the director of a senior living facility in Canandaigua. So, based on my experience in that industry over 40 years, I would say that I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. There have been challenges surrounding nursing homes forever,” Helming told

Some of the challenges that she often ponders include staffing shortages, especially during holidays and weekends.

Issues with direct care as well as the proper training of professionals, and even the retention of those same staff inside nursing home facilities is a reoccurring responsibility to manage.

These issues are then toppled with the spurring outbreaks of COVID-19 inside long-term care facilities suggest to Helming that the pandemic has accentuated the structural underlying problems with state-regulated nursing homes.

“I think COVID has highlighted for a larger population that the way our nursing homes are currently structured, we have these challenges and we need to address them,” she said.

Most of all, Helming patiently waits for the potential arrival of New York State Commissioner of Health Howard Zucker to speak at some point during the dual public hearings.

Although Zucker’s attendance has not been confirmed as of yet, she urges him to participate in the public hearing – and if not, she’s already planning to call upon her peers to summon him with a subpoena, if necessary.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing directly from the Commissioner of Health. It’s unclear to me whether or not he’ll be testifying and if he’s not there, then I will be calling on my colleagues in the Senate to use the subpoena powers granted to them and have him there so he can answers about some of these policies or directives that were issued,” Helming explained.

In her eyes, the entire state of New York deserves an explanation from Zucker in this particular public setting.

“He needs to explain it. We need to hear from him,” she further added.

Aside from Zucker, Helming still plans to keep asking the same questions that she has been considering since the start of the pandemic.

Helming considers, “Really, what I’m looking for clarification is what went wrong this time? What should we have done better? What should the state have stepped in and done to help prevent the deaths?”

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt [R-62] who recently spoke with on the Daily Debrief explained that progress on the policy front has been stalled during the last few years since 2018.

DAILY DEBRIEF: Sen. Ortt talks nursing homes, impact executive orders had on health and safety of residents (podcast)

Ortt who sponsored two separate pieces of legislation this session for Senate Bills 1112 and 1113 were both recently voted down in-committee among legislators within the Health Committee.

Senate Bill 1112 would have imposed a moratorium on any purchasing of additional nursing home facilities for twenty-four months for current owners who managed locations with preexisting deficiencies and violations.

Senate Bill 1113, titled the “Unpredictable Nursing Home Inspection Act,” would have required the state’s Department of Health to conduct 40-percent of all inspections at nursing homes outside normal business hours, without any prior notice, and even an annual spring inspection report.

Similarly, Helming has openly supported efforts to open nursing homes for more unannounced surprise visits, especially during off-hours.

“We need to put a focus on doing surprise visits, not only during the day, but again on nights, weekends and holidays, when it seems like that’s when most of the problems occur,” Helming insisted.

Beyond backing such proponents, not only must “the right policies be in place,” the “proper funding” must be present as well, according to Helming.

“But more than that, we need to make sure that we have the proper funding and other resources in place. Do we have the proper requirements in terms of number of staff who are required? Are we making sure that they have the correct resources in place? I mean, those are all issues that we need to drill down to and when it comes to Leader Ortt talking about those pieces of legislation and being shot down by the majority members, that’s very scary to me,” she shared.

Taking a shot at Senator Rachel May [D-53], who chairs the Committee on Aging, Helming seems startled that she has not called for any legislative proposals to be considered whatsoever, even now as the state continues to reopen while recovering from the crippling effects of the pandemic.

“We have Senator Rachel May right in our backyard in the Syracuse area. We’re four months into this pandemic. We’re not even clear how many people lost their lives, and what have we done to prevent that or to curtail that? She has literally done nothing. But again, it’s four months, and we’re just now having a hearing on this and we’ve passed no legislation to provide support. It’s just astounding to me, and these are the types of topics that we’ll drill down during the hearing,” she emphasized.

But even after the pair of hearings eventually conclude, Helming remains pessimistic about the prospects of the state’s Legislature passing comprehensive policy reform to combat the spread of the COVID-19 across the state’s nursing homes while holding these same facilities more accountable.

She ponders, “I hope that we can uncover helpful information at this hearing. I remain concerned that even if we do even if we uncover information, which would help us do better for our senior citizens going forward, will the majority take the necessary steps to integrate. If it’s policy, if it’s funding, whatever it is, will they take the necessary action to make sure that the problems are addressed?”

Helming, who lives in the City of Canandaigua has closely watched’s ongoing pair of investigations into Ontario Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare and Elm Manor.

With these two facilities located in her own hometown, both of which collectively account for 30 out of the total 34 COVID-19 related deaths across Ontario County – she now carries these stats and stories into the public hearings as a representative of her district.

“Me personally, I hadn’t heard anything from constituents regarding Elm Manor, but when it comes to the [Ontario] Centers, I have been sending letters to the state of New York Department of Health since February or April of 2019, asking them to look into problems there and I have received some generic responses,” Helming admitted.

After a series of stories from were released about allegations of abuse and neglect amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Ontario Center, the Department of Health confirmed that an unannounced visit occurred in only a matter of a few days following the headlines on Thursday, July 2nd.

RELATED READ: State Department of Health makes unannounced visit to Ontario Center, says investigation into facility underway

Although she has contacted the Department of Health on a frequent basis, Helming hadn’t heard anything from them until Saturday, July 4th – two days after an active investigation had gone underway, according to officials.

“The last response I heard from a representative of the Department of Health was actually on the Fourth of July. She called me and told me that there’s a current investigation ongoing, but I do plan to bring-up or have one of my colleagues bring-up the fact that as an elected official, we hear from constituents all the time and if you get a one-off complaint, you address it. But when you get complaints over and over and over again to me, it signals that there’s a problem, and when I raise this up the flagpole to the Department of Health, the Commissioner of Health, then I think there needs to be closer eyes. There needs to be a quicker response time on what’s going on, some sort of investigation needs to happen and not just phone calls back to the facility, but an in-person physical inspection,” she elaborated.

Even in her own backyard, the COVID-19 pandemic has plagued Ontario Center and Elm Manor, resulting in a disproportionate number of deaths, and yet no answers.

“We need to figure out what’s going on what needs to be done,” Helming concluded.

Check out coverage from local nursing home incidents: