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Nursing homes file lawsuit to have Erie County’s Ruthie’s Law declared ‘illegal’

Tom Dinki/WBFO News file photo
Williamsville Suburban nursing home, one of the eight nursing homes that filed a lawsuit against Erie County Friday over Ruthie's Law.

The Erie County administration announced last week it will finally begin fining nursing homes for not complying with Ruthie’s Law. Now nursing homes are fighting back.

The New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents nursing homes across the state, filed a lawsuit against the county Friday in New York State Supreme Court. The suit is asking a judge to declare Ruthie’s Law illegal and bar county officials from enforcing it.   

“We felt we had to take a stand,” Neil Murray, an Albany-based attorney for the NYSHFA, told WBFO, “and we tried everything as a last resort to not be in a situation where fines are being unfairly imposed on us.”

Ruthie’s Law, passed by Erie County in 2017, mandates nursing homes report injuries and abuse to the county twice a year, as well submit proof they’re sharing their ratings with prospective clients.

However, nursing homes have long argued that Ruthie’s Law is preempted by state law. Section 2812 of New York Public Health Law says that counties cannot make regulations for nursing homes, which are regulated by the New York State Department of Health.

Their lawsuit alleges Erie County officials exceeded their authority when creating Ruthie’s Law, and asks a judge to issue a declaratory judgment that Ruthie’s Law is “unconstitutional, invalid, illegal, null and void, (and) unenforceable” due to state law.

“We were frankly dismayed that for so long we were being portrayed as scofflaws and noncompliant nursing homes, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” Murray said. “The irony is that it was Erie County that was actually violating the law, not us.”

The complaint names Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Commissioner of Senior Services David Shenk and Erie County Attorney Michael Siragusa as defendants. 

“We will defend the law and do not comment on pending litigation,” Poloncarz said in a statement Friday.

Poloncarz proposed Ruthie’s Law after the 2016 death of Buffalo nursing home resident Ruth Murray. The 82-year-old dementia patient was beaten to death by another dementia patient after mistakenly wandering into his room. 

However, Poloncarz and his administration have been slow to enforce the law. They’ve yet to enact any civil penalties, despite at times as many as two-thirds of the county’s 35 nursing homes failing to comply.

WBFO reportedabout the lack of Ruthie’s Law enforcement in October. Ever since, the county Legislature has put pressure on the county administration to issue fines, leading to Shenk’s announcement last week that he will issue fines if the current 16 noncompliant nursing homes don’t comply by Feb. 28.

Murray, no relation to Ruth Murray, said NYSHFA filed the lawsuit to be “proactive.” It’s filed on behalf of six local nursing homes currently not complying with Ruthie’s Law: Schofield Care, Williamsville Suburban and all six Elderwood facilities. 

As of Friday, county officials had yet to be officially served with paperwork and a judge had yet to be assigned to the case.

“I’m still holding out hope that everyone will come to the table and avoid this unnecessary and costly process that we’re going through,” Murray said.

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