ALBANY, N.Y. (WWNY) - A state Supreme Court judge in Albany has ordered Governor Cuomo’s Department of Health to surrender details of nursing home deaths from COVID-19 to a government watchdog group.
The ruling, first reported by the New York Post, determined that the health department broke the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) by repeatedly putting off a request for information from the Empire Center For Public Policy.
Bill Hammond, a Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Empire Center, filed a FOIL request last August 3, seeking the total number of COVID-related nursing home deaths in the state, how many deaths on a given date, and how many deaths in each nursing home.
Even though the state Health Department collects that information for its own purposes, it repeatedly told Hammond it needed additional time to answer his request.
The judge didn’t buy it.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor, in a decision Wednesday, wrote the Department of Health “has had ample time to respond to Empire Center’s FOIL request.
“Its continued failure to provide (Empire Center) a response, given the straightforward nature of the request, how the data is collected and maintained, and the fact that some of the requested data has already been made publicly available...goes against FOIL’s broad standard of open and transparent government and is a violation of the statute.”
“I think it’s important to remember this case is about thousands of people who died” and their families, Hammond told 7 News Wednesday.
“In the time we’ve been fighting the health department to get this information, we’ve had a whole second wave” of COVID, he noted. Getting the information earlier “might have helped.”
While he expects the state to appeal the judge’s ruling, “appealing would be an enormous waste of time and energy,” Hammond said.
A spokesman for the health department said in an email that “With the preliminary audit complete, we were already in the process of responding to their FOIL request, and updating DOH’s website with publicly available information.”
Wednesday’s court ruling comes just a few days after the state Attorney General issued a scathing report which concluded the Cuomo administration’s health department under-counted the number of nursing home deaths from COVID by as much as 50 percent.
Cuomo’s critics have accused him of trying to cover up the true death toll in the state’s nursing homes, which they said resulted from a March directive that COVID positive patients be allowed back into nursing homes, causing the virus to spread.
Nine top health officials in the Cuomo administration have quit in recent months, reportedly because the governor has sidelined public health experts and elected to make decisions about the state’s response to the pandemic in consultation with a few close aides.