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Republican legislators ask why Erie County isn’t enforcing Ruthie’s Law

WBFO file photo
Erie County Legislature Republican caucus members, including Joseph Lorigo (far left), address the media in 2012.

Republicans in the Erie County Legislature want answers about Ruthie’s Law.

The Republican minority caucus sent a letter to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Tuesday, demanding he explain why nursing homes aren’t following the law and what his administration is doing to enforce it.

“If we’re out here saying this law is protecting people and helping our most vulnerable population and we’re really not doing that, then there needs to be some discussion at the very least,” said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca.

The letter cites WBFO’s report last week that most nursing homes are not complying with Ruthie’s Law, yet the county hasn’t fined or subpoenaed the facilities like the law states it would.

Ruthie’s Law mandates nursing homes report abuse-related incidents to the county twice a year, as well as submit proof they share inspection ratings with prospective clients, but just 13 of the county’s 36 nursing homes did so during the latest reporting period. 

Overall, nursing homes have complied at a rate of less than 40%.

The law was proposed by Poloncarz and unanimously passed by the Legislature in 2017. It’s named after Ruth Murray, who was beaten to death by a fellow Buffalo nursing home resident in 2016.

“The concern is not the motivation for passing the law,” Lorigo said. “The concern is the motivation for touting it for the past two years as some silver bullet to keep people safe, when in reality the law was nothing but a headline grab that nobody ever intended to do anything with.”

“We have a government that likes to legislate by press release and headline grab and not actually do anything to solve the problems,” he added. “So to hear that the county executive is out there touting the success of this law, but not actually doing anything to ensure that the law is being followed is, unfortunately, not a surprise.”

Poloncarz, who has a campaign ad praising Ruthie’s Law on his Twitter page, declined to be interviewed for WBFO’s original report about Ruthie’s Law.

In response to the Republican caucus’ letter, Poloncarz spokesperson Peter Anderson said the county’s Department of Senior Services and Attorney’s Office are discussing what to do about noncompliant nursing homes, but no decisions have been made.

“Nothing is off the table, but also nothing ready to be discussed yet,” he said.

Anderson also called the Republican caucus’ letter a “purely political stunt,” as Election Day is less than a week away. Poloncarz, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican caucus member Lynne Dixon.

Any reasonable and caring facility would have no issues complying with Ruthie’s Law, Anderson added.

Nursing homes have argued Ruthie’s Law is redundant. 

They’re already mandated to report abuse, injuries, and negligence deaths to the New York State Department of Health, while U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ratings are already publicly available on federal, state and county websites.

The New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents nursing homes across the state, also argues Ruthie’s Law is invalid because of Section 2812 of New York Public Health Law, which states that counties can’t make regulations for hospitals.

Association officials say if the county tried to enforce Ruthie’s Law through the $2,000 civil penalty or subpoena for their records, neither would hold up in court.

Lorigo disagrees.

“If the nursing homes are that confident that counties can’t pass laws or regulations regarding their operation, then they should challenge it in court and put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “In my opinion, the law is on the books, it was passed unanimously by the legislature, it should be enforced by the administration. That’s their job.”

Republican caucus legislators are specifically asking Poloncarz to provide them with a report detailing the number of noncompliant nursing homes; the reason each nursing home has given for not complying; and how the administration has tried to retrieve records from noncompliant nursing homes.

They’re also asking Poloncarz’s share how his administration plans to enforce the law going forward.

Democrats in the majority caucus get to decide whether Ruthie’s Law will be addressed in a Legislature meeting, according to Lorigo. He said he “wouldn’t hold (his) breath.”

“This legislative majority is certainly not interested in holding this administration accountable,” he said.

A call to the majority caucus was not immediately returned. 

“But my hope would be the county executive responds to the letter, has his commissioner of Senior Services come and give an explanation, and we can work together to get to the bottom of what the problem is,” Lorigo said.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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