New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a bill repealing a state law protecting health care facilities and professionals from COVID-19 related lawsuits.

The Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act was enacted one year ago in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was just gaining steam. New York lawmakers’ voted nearly unanimously (149-1) last month to repeal the controversial measure, which offered protection from civil and criminal liability.

Nursing homes and their staff are among those affected by the repeal, which went into effect immediately when Cuomo signed it into law on April 6, per Law360

Nursing homes will be vulnerable to COVID-19 related lawsuits going forward. However, the repeal is not retroactive, leaving in place protections for incidents that occurred during the period the law was in effect.

Advocates Applaud, Health Care Industry Opposes

Nursing home and elder care advocates have celebrated the repeal as a restoration of the rights that protect nursing home residents from abuse or neglect. 

On the other hand, the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association have strongly opposed the repeal, according to ABC News.

Cuomo Under Fire For Possible Nursing Home Death Cover-Up

The repeal comes amid tough times for the New York governor, who was previously acclaimed for his proactive handling of the pandemic in the face of a sluggish federal response from the Trump administration.

In January, a report from New York Attorney General Letitia James suggested that Cuomo’s administration may have intentionally underreported nursing home deaths by as much as 50%. These and other concerns related to the governor’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic are under investigation by the FBI, as reported by The New York Times.

What Did the Emergency or Disaster Protection Act Do?

The Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act shielded hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and nurses from lawsuits related to COVID-19 injuries and deaths. It loosened record-keeping requirements and stated that no employee at a protected facility could be charged with neglect or abuse as long as they were responding to COVID-19 “in good faith.”

The only exceptions were cases of willful, reckless or criminal misconduct or gross negligence. The law spelled out that problems stemming from staffing shortages or other shortages of resources would not be considered gross negligence. (“Gross negligence” is a legal term meaning reckless disregard for the lives or safety of others.)

Complaints About New York’s COVID-19  Legal Protections

Critics of the Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act claim that the legislation inappropriately protected executives from being held accountable for deaths caused by neglect. Advocates were concerned that these protections created incentives for for-profit nursing homes to neglect investing in staffing and personal protective equipment.