“In today’s regulatory environment, health care providers are forced to navigate within a labyrinth of complex governmental regulations, and one wrong can carry drastic consequences.”
The coronavirus pandemic clamped down on Albany last summer, bringing most policymaking and lobbying to a halt. However, that didn’t happen for Hinman Straub Advisers, LLC, and the Centers Health Care company.
Hinman Straub, an Albany-based lobbying firm, has been pushing the interests of Centers Health Care, one of the largest nursing home care providers in the entire state, at the expense of residents and families after the Legislature failed to pass crucial nursing home-related legislation.
Founded in 1996, Kenneth “Kenny” Rozenberg created the Centers Health Care company, which later became the largest post-acute health care continuum in the Northeast.
Just last year, the Centers for Specialty Care Group, LLC, parent company, employed 3,500 staff and generated $57.17 million in sales.
In 2019, the Albany lobbying firm started representing the Bronx-based multi-million dollar revenue generating nursing home corporation long before the coronavirus affected their 27 managed and owned facilities statewide and led to a situation that started spiraling out of control, particularly for the Ontario Center in Canandaigua.
Ontario Center has been subject to an investigation series led by FingerLakes1.com ever since last spring.
Serving as the principal lobbyists for Centers Health Care, this summer seemed especially busy for the lobbyists, according to the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE] database.
With Governor Andrew Cuomo declaring a public health emergency, which restricted physical appearances to Albany for state lawmakers who met online throughout the summer months during the end of the 2019-2020 legislative session, Hinman Straub’s strength lied in numbers.
More than half of Hinman Straub’s entire legal team lobbied on a host of proposed nursing home bills, almost all of which didn’t pass in 2020.
Nineteen members of the firm were specifically assigned to directly lobby on 14 particular bills during the September-October bi-monthly period, including Sean Doolan, Hinman Straub’s principal.
He’s also the sole treasurer of the State Streets Associates PAC, which shuffles around political campaign contributions to representatives in Albany in order to advance their policy-related aims and prerogatives for their clients.
Since 1999, Doolan has donated almost half of a million of his own money to the PAC in the amount of $424,389.37, according to the state’s Board of Elections website.
He’s not alone either. Seventeen out of the 19 lobbyists who were assigned to represent Centers Health Care have also financially contributed to that same political action committee.
Aside from distributing those funds to members of the state Legislature, the political action committee has also delivered campaign contributions to the Andrew Cuomo for New York, Inc. campaign fund.
Since 2008, the State Street Associates PAC has awarded Cuomo’s election committee with $172,600.
If that’s not enough either, Hinman Straub Advisors, LLC, offered an additional $22,000, resulting in $194,600 in contributions between the official lobbying firm and their own political action committee.
Additionally, the Centers Health Care company has contributed $57,500 under three FKAs: Centers for Care; Centers for Care, LLC and Centers for Specialty Care.
These three entities have contributed a combined $252,100 to Cuomo’s amassing electoral treasure chest.
Even now, after Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James recently released a bombshell report on nursing homes, Cuomo has been an adamant defender of the owners and operators of those same facilities.
Last spring, he even backed them by ensuring that hospital and nursing home executives like Rozenberg are shielded from any lawsuits that emerge in part because of the coronavirus pandemic by adding an immunity provision to the 2020 annual budget.
“The leadership wanted to wait until this calendar year to really start passing the kinds of legislation that was sort of more long-term.”
One Albany lawmaker in particular, Senator Rachel May [D-53], had put forth four of the 14 bills that were lobbied by Hinman Straub — tying the all-time record with state Senator Sue Serino [R-41].
Between May and Serino, they introduced eight out of the 14 lobbied bills, and almost half of the Senate supported at least one of them.
Technically, 27 out of the 60 elected senators, or 45-percent of Senate lawmakers either sponsored or co-sponsored those particular pieces of legislation. Three district seats were vacant heading into Nov. 3 and the 2020 election cycle.
When comparing rates among party representation, the super majority only had 11 out of 40 Democrats sponsor or co-sponsor these particular nursing home bills, accounting for 28-percent of their entire party.
In contrast, 16 out of the 20 Republicans supported those same bills, resulting in an 80-percent turn-out rate.
Despite being in the minority, Republicans still secured a notable spread among the 27 lawmakers that supported these legislative efforts: 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Although Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the Senate’s representation on the nursing home issue, both parties sponsored the same number of bills: seven each across eight individual sponsors.
Forty co-sponsors spanned across the 14 bills, another category where Republicans outmatched Democrats. Seventy-percent of all co-sponsors came from Republican senators while the other 30-percent derived from Democrats.
Only two out of the bills gained bipartisan co-sponsor support, one of which had been sponsored by May.
In a Feb. 2 phone interview with May, she revealed that the Democratic majority did not seem hard-pressed to push any of those legislative efforts forward during the summer — and wait until the start of 2021.
“We really didn’t need as a Legislature to pass bills, except some very specific bills about the pandemic, like eviction protections that were very time sensitive. But the leadership wanted to wait until this calendar year to really start passing the kinds of legislation that was sort of more long term,” May told FingerLakes1.com.
May, who originally introduced four nursing home related bills last session, the most among her Democrat colleagues, only reintroduced two of them in 2021 to restart that entire process.
Senate Bill S597 reintroduces her visitation act while Senate Bill S2022 directs the Department of Health to publish their inspection reports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which are scheduled to be reviewed as a part of the 2021-2022 legislative session.
Specifically, the “Nursing Home Visitation Act” had undergone some slight modifications since being initially introduced last summer, and subsequently lobbied on by Hinman Straub Advisors, LLC.
“They’re basically the same bills. There have been a few tweaks because either the Assembly wanted some changes, or we heard from some advocates that it wasn’t going to quite work the way we had planned,” she recalled.
Unlike last session, however, her bills aren’t being sent to the Rules Committee this time around. One bill has been referred to the Aging Committee, which she currently sits on and chairs.
Passing bills through the Rules Committee allows for lawmakers to expedite the legislative process and consider bills only 24-hours after being filed.
“The Rules Committee is only used for if something’s time sensitive and they want to get it passed quickly, they’ll just put it through the Rules Committee because that’s easier to do rapidly,” May explained. “Things can go straight to the floor after they pass the Rules Committee so you could get something passed in one day.”
Although the steps to get a bill through the Rules Committees seem relatively clear, the actual process behind how bills get referred to whichever committee really isn’t.
It’s not a choice that the bill sponsor weighs in on, but rather their party’s leadership, who pulls the levers of political power and make those decisions about which pieces of legislation continue beyond their respective committees.
In essence, committees review introduced bills that are related to their assignments, and act like “a sieve to sift out undesirable or unworkable ideas,” as the state’s own Senate website aptly characterizes.
Even the powerful Rules Committee shouldn’t be abused either, according to May.
“If there’s some absolutely urgent reason why a bill needs to get passed, you can ask for leadership, ‘Please, put it through Rules,’ but they prefer to go through the normal channels, and have it be vetted by the committees and I think that’s the right way to go,” May elaborated.
Although May was unaware of Hinman Straub’s direct lobbying on her specific bills, she still believes that gathering input is “helpful” whenever trying to pass policies that are equitable for all.
“I’m always open to hearing from whoever has input about the bills. We meet regularly with lobbyists like Hinman Straub as well as with advocacy and industry organizations. You want to gather all the information you can gather before you either write the legislation or then vote on it, because they can have a lot of firsthand input. That’s helpful,” she shared.
Last session, however, 13 out of the 14 bills were referred to the Rules Committee, all of which stayed there, and ultimately died in committee upon the conclusion of the 2019-2020 legislative session.
In this particular case, her own bills actually improved, in her eyes. Her nursing home visitation bill originally stipulated allowing only one person to enter any facility per resident, but now two can visit instead of one.
The other revision previously required visitors to acquire an actual “medical certification,” mandating families and friends to “go see a doctor” and get some sort of authorization — particular language that had been adopted from another state’s pre-existing law.
“The advocates were saying that was just too high a bar,” she admitted.
As long as the visitors have undergone the same safety protocols that nursing home staff follow like COVID-19 testing and temperature checks, advocates felt that’s a fairer version of the bill that mitigates creating “a barrier” for concerned families and relatives to be unable to take advantage of the visitation policy — if it actually passes this time around.
“The bottom line is if they didn’t pass, it’s because the majority didn’t put them on the floor.”
As for Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt [R-62], who currently sits on the Rules Committee, he explained that the Democrat majority controls the agenda in Albany during a recent phone interview on Thursday, Feb. 4.
“If they went through Rules, then they were able to be put on the floor for a vote,” Ortt told FingerLakes1.com.
Although Ortt couldn’t comment on what actually happened last session within the Rules Committee, he asserted that “it’s because the majority didn’t put them on the floor” and insists that nursing home-related policies should pass in 2021.
“If they passed the Rules last year, there is no reason why they didn’t come to the floor, except for the fact that ultimately, the majority gets to decide which bills are going to come to the floor and which ones aren’t,” he elaborated.
This statement aligns with May’s acknowledgement that Democratic leadership sought to bog down the policymaking procedures even before Hinman Straub lobbied on a specific package of nursing home bills during the summer months.
When FingerLakes1.com informed Ortt about May’s statement that Democrats “wanted to wait until this calendar year” to start prioritizing nursing home-related bills in 2021, he argued that “you can’t tell me it wasn’t a priority last year” either.
Passing comprehensive legislation to bring oversight and transparency to nursing homes in New York last session could’ve possibly resulted in some immediate impacts inside those same facilities statewide, according to Ortt.
Even referring back to his own bills that he’s been consistently reintroducing ever since 2018, Ortt believes that oversight is needed, especially for the Department of Health agency, which directly reports to Cuomo and his administration.
“Certainly they’re going to try and lobby, either against, or to modify the bills.”
However, nursing home operators are “going to take an interest” whenever bills bring about accountability and greater regulatory oversight for their long-term care businesses like Centers Health Care, especially amid a global pandemic.
In he case of Hinman Straub, their legal philosophy for clients in that industry sector argues “health care providers are forced to navigate within a labyrinth of complex governmental regulations, and one wrong step can carry drastic consequences,” according to their website.
That’s their straightforward sales pitch for why their direct lobbying services are necessary amid “the constantly evolving New York long-term care landscape.”
“Certainly they’re going to try and lobby, either against, or to modify the bills,” Ortt added.
All things considered, Ortt recognizes Hinman Straub’s “right” to lobby, one that’s frequently exercised and “happens every day in Albany and elsewhere for that matter.
“It’s just part of democracy in government to a large extent,” he later admitted.
But Ortt also asked an underlying question from a policy-creating perspective: “At what point are we making decisions with the interests of the people who live in these facilities, and who work in these facilities versus other interests?”
At the forefront of any policy conversation relating to COVID-19 and nursing homes, Ortt considers that he and his colleagues “have to make sure that we’re keeping in mind the people who live here, the people who work there, the family members of those folks as well, because those are the people that I work for,” he insisted.
“We could have passed some of these bills. We did not. So, in my view, it’s a failure of the legislature. It’s a failure of government.”
Almost a year has passed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but not much policy has come from Albany, especially in comparison to previous legislative sessions.
“We haven’t done anything thus far. I’ll put it that way. We haven’t,” Ortt claimed.
In 2020, an absence of concrete policy efforts have been supplemented by executive actions and orders from Cuomo.
Aside from Hinman Straub lobbying on several nursing home bills that never had a chance to be heard, the Senate didn’t subpoenaed the Department of Health, Commissioner of Health Howard Zucker or even Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James’ office — all of which could’ve been accomplished through the state’s Legislature.
But now, with bombshell after bombshell blowing-off about Cuomo’s abuses of executive powers, Ortt believes that “it’s going to be very difficult for the Legislature to just do nothing.”
At the same time, however, he acknowledged that he and his colleagues burden part of that blame as well.
“We knew that there were issues in these facilities. All of these things were confirmed in Attorney General Tish’s report. None of that came as a shock,” Ortt explained.
For Ortt, the conversations that kept circling unofficially throughout the summer, which suggested that an underreporting of cases and deaths inside nursing homes had been ongoing, eventually found a somber solace in the Attorney General’s statement that became a bittersweet “confirmation” of the truth for him.
“Like a lot of things in Albany, it moves a little bit at a glacial pace.”
The problems from the past several months have paved a path forward for Ortt that’s now calling for “a fuller investigation” into Attorney General James’ findings as well as the Department of Health that sought “to mislead the people of New York regarding his [Cuomo] order.”
However, he’s still unsure whether the state Legislature will act in a bipartisan fashion to support advancing accountability and transparency measures within Cuomo’s administration, which has been losing public trust with each passing day.
One of the bills that had been lobbied by Hinman Straub, and failed to pass last session, sought to create an independent bipartisan commission to investigate COVID-19 related deaths that occurred inside nursing homes.
Ortt co-sponsored that piece of legislation alongside Republican colleagues in the Senate like O’Mara and Senator Pam Helming [R-54] as well as a few of their Democratic peers, who introduced that same bill in the state Assembly.
With all other options exhausted, if the state cannot operate impartially on this controversial issue, federal intervention may be needed, according to Ortt, who echoes the sentiments of some congressional representatives from New York.
“We need a full accounting of the governor’s handling, specifically of the nursing home piece of this pandemic response. And we also need to rescind those emergency powers,” Ortt argued.
Rep. Tom Reed [R-23] returned to Albany on Tues., Feb. 9, following an open invitation from state Senate and Assembly Republicans, including state Senator Tom O’Mara [R-58], who represents portions of the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier.
O’Mara’s jurisdiction partly overlaps with the congressman’s federal district, who revealed that he’s “fully supportive” of Reed’s initiative to call for the U.S. Department of Justice to subpoena Cuomo at the federal level, in a recent phone interview with FingerLakes1.com on Wed., Feb. 10.
The continuous call for transparency is not even a politically motivated endeavor for Ortt. He expressed his earnest intentions to advocate on behalf of the families of nursing home residents, no matter what their party affiliations might actually be.
“If they lost a loved one, they deserve a full answer of what went wrong and if there were mistakes made, we need to know that so we can do the right thing going forward,” Ortt explained.
Now more than ever, the need for comprehensive legislation for nursing homes is quintessential, especially after the daily barrage of revelations that are continuing to surface about the Cuomo administration’s mishandling of the pandemic and Health department’s severe inefficiencies that are emblematic of the state agency.
“There needs to be legislation that is passed, that deals with the problems on the ground in these facilities. The bills we’ve talked and talked about would be a good start,” Ortt said.
And he even believes that “we’re getting traction on all of those issues,” which are still inching “at a glacial pace,” only in Albany.
“They may be talking about it in their districts, but there’s no movements thatt way here in Albany.”
May, a Democrat and staunch advocate for elder rights, admitted that she’s frustrated with how lawmakers couldn’t access the accurate numbers regarding COVID-19 related death counts inside nursing homes through the Department of Health — only after a portion of all facilities revealed their actual counts through the Attorney General’s report.
“I’m so glad that report came out because people needed to understand what was going on,” May shared.
At the same time, however, May argued that the death counts were “the least important” findings. She’s more concerned with the understaffing of those facilities — an issue that’s been aired extensively this summer, especially during the dual public hearings from last August.
“I think that’s probably the least important thing in the report. It’s gotten the most attention, but I think what’s more important is that the Attorney General, both confirmed and quantified a lot of what we found in our hearings about the problems with staffing levels in nursing homes being a big reason for the spread of the virus,” she said.
May insisted that there’s “the need for better oversight, the need for more transparency,” and yet failed to approve a call from one her colleagues to issue a subpoena through the Aging Committee, which she chairs, according to O’Mara.
“Senator Serino moved for the subpoena to be issued to the Aging Committee, which is chaired by Senator May, and that was summarily rejected in that committee hearing,” O’Mara told FingerLakes1.com.
“This chair of our Senate Investigations Committee, Jim Skoufis, has talked for months about subpoenas, which he has the authority to issue. Yet when I call for that last Monday, my microphone was muted, and he terminated debate and did not allow a vote on my motion,” O’Mara recalled.
Even as the ranking Republican during that virtual session, he couldn’t arrive at an amicable resolution with his fellow colleagues in the Investigations Committee.
Despite that contentious situation, he’s still reaching across the aisle and not letting partisanship get in the way to answer the key questions about New York’s response to the coronavirus inside nursing homes.
“We need to make sure that it’s not a partisan witch hunt, which it is not,” O’Mara mentioned.
Even now, its still unclear as to what the future actually holds for the state Legislature in both the Senate and Assembly chambers after an unprecedented end to the 2019-2020 legislative session that disrupted the typical policymaking schedule in Albany.
Only a handful of the 14 nursing home-related bills that failed to pass last summer following Hinman Straub’s direct lobbying have been reintroduced for consideration as a part of the 2021-2022 legislative session.
Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Jacomowitz of Centers Health Care disclosed to FingerLakes1.com that their “leadership has decided not to comment at this time” after being asked about which bills their company actively lobbied against last session.
Get the latest headlines delivered to your inbox each morning? Sign up for our Morning Edition to start your day. FL1 on the Go! Download the free FingerLakes1.com App for Android (All Android Devices) or iOS (iPhone, iPad).