Senator O'Mara offers his weekly perspective on many of the key challenges and issues facing the Legislature, as well as on legislative actions, local initiatives, state programs and policies, and more. Stop back every Monday for Senator O'Mara's latest column...
At a recent meeting of the state Senate Aging Committee, one of the most effective watchdogs of New York State’s COVID-19 response delivered an important reminder on the unfinished work facing our state.
While Governor Kathy Hochul and the Legislature’s Democrat majorities were consumed with things like ramming through legislation trying to clean up yet another political disaster of their own making -- this time to pave the way for removing indicted Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin from the ballot -- they remain disturbingly silent on much more critical priorities.
Their lack of urgency especially extends to the continuing need for a comprehensive, top-to-bottom, independent examination of New York’s COVID-19 response -- including its costs, what we did right and, equally if not more important, where things went wrong.
In his testimony before the Aging Committee, Bill Hammond of the Empire Center for Public Policy, whose research and analysis throughout the earliest and most brutal months of the pandemic sounded myriad alarms, stated, “The key to being better prepared is to learn from hard experience. The state needs a careful and comprehensive investigation of its pandemic response -- ideally conducted by a commission of independent experts. Otherwise, there is a danger that the invaluable lessons of this once-in-a-century catastrophe will go to waste.”
The lessons will go to waste.
Timeliness is urgent.
“There are dozens of issues across multiple agencies and multiple layers of government that are crying out for analysis and reform,” Hammond says. “Now is the time to get that done, while memories are fresh and money is available.”
Once again, he’s on point.
Governor Hochul has the authority to initiate an independent study commission at any time, yet the administration appears lukewarm, at best, to taking that step. Likewise with the Senate and Assembly Democrat majorities that have repeatedly ignored calls by our Republican conferences to bring the many layers of the COVID-19 response out into the light of day.
The best evidence of their reluctance is the fact that the new state budget, despite being New York’s largest-ever spending plan, does not take any steps or devote any serious resources to undertaking a reexamination of this kind.
“The investigation should not be about pointing fingers or shaming officials past or present. It should be about understanding what went wrong and devising systems to get things right in the future,” Hammond continued in his testimony.
In other words, this cannot and should not be a political witch hunt. It must be about fact finding. It must be about highlighting what appear to have been successful actions, so that the state can build on that success and strengthen it. It also should pinpoint what went wrong and why, so that New York can take whatever steps are needed to shore up weaknesses, fix shortcomings, and close gaps.
Furthermore, taxpayers deserve an accurate, transparent, readily accessible accounting of the state’s enormous, emergency expenditures on the COVID-19 response.
In early March, for example, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a new, albeit limited audit focusing on nursing homes revealing that “on many key indicators, New York significantly trailed other states in surveying nursing homes and developing strategies to stop infections from spreading in facilities.”
What transpired in nursing homes, the loss of more than 15,000 lives, emerges as the tragedy of this pandemic. It was also the state’s most egregious failure.
According to the comptroller, “The pandemic was devastating and deadly for New Yorkers living in nursing homes ... Our audit findings are extremely troubling. The public was misled by those at the highest level of state government through distortion and suppression of the facts when New Yorkers deserved the truth. The pandemic is not over, and I am hopeful the current administration will make changes to improve accountability and protect lives.”
As a result of the audit, the comptroller has recommended, among other actions, that:
- the Executive Chamber assess and improve its internal control environment, including improving cooperation with state oversight inquiries, communication with localities, and external reporting; and that
- the Department of Health expand its use of infection control data to identify patterns, trends, areas of concern or non-compliance that will help create policy recommendations for infection control practices and nursing home surveys; improve quality of public reported data; and strengthen communication and coordination with localities on collection and reporting and use of infection control data.
Audits like this one deserve to be broad-based and agencywide. It is the only course of action that can make us better prepared.
The COVID-19 response spread across New York’s entire bureaucracy -- education, health care in all its sectors, unemployment, housing, social services, criminal justice, you name it - and consumed vast state and federal resources.
It was unprecedented and deserves a hard, honest, and straightforward reexamination.
This reexamination should be a top priority for Governor Hochul and the Democrat leaders of the Legislature.
Right now, they have done nothing but turn their backs on it.