Can Hochul Turn Around NY Health Department Without Firing Its Commissioner?

Governor Kathy Hochul officially took over the top post in the state just after midnight Tuesday and is now faced with tough decisions about how to overhaul the administration she inherited from Andrew Cuomo. One of the most debated figures is State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker—who often acted as a right hand to the outgoing governor.

When Cuomo announced his resignation earlier this month, following an investigation from the state Attorney General confirming claims of sexual harassment against him, Hochul vowed, “No one who was named as doing anything unethical in the report will remain in my administration.”

Zucker wasn’t named in that report, but some say he was part of the broader toxic culture in Albany under Cuomo that made the state Health Department a difficult workplace and a poor collaborator.

Some are calling for his ousting, noting that Zucker oversaw the Health Department as nursing home deaths were undercounted during the pandemic; however, he was not named in a separate state Attorney General’s report released in January. Several senior and junior officials also departed under Zucker’s helm, shedding talent at a crucial period for the state’s health policy. Others say, if his knowledge and experience are still needed to shepherd New York through the pandemic, he should be given another chance.

The New York Post reported that Hochul already asked Zucker to stay on, but her transition team says she is conducting a 45-day review of personnel decisions. Asked to confirm the report, a Health Department spokesperson said, “Dr. Zucker remains focused on managing this unprecedented pandemic, leading his team of thousands of deeply committed public health professionals and public servants.”

But Hochul’s administration faces urgent health challenges. At least 60 Health Department staffers, including top officials, researchers and program managers, have left just this year, according to a list the New York Post obtained from the state comptroller, which WNYC/Gothamist has also viewed.

WNYC/Gothamist spoke with one senior member of the health department, who recently departed and commented on the condition of anonymity. They acknowledged that long hours are to be expected during a public health crisis but said what really wore them down was the fact that the culture “was mean-spirited and created an environment of fear.” The staffer said that culture primarily stemmed from people working in the executive chamber and was torn when it came to Zucker’s role in perpetuating it.

Commissioner Zucker would yell at times but was just a “messenger,” the former official said, adding, “I was never scared of Dr. Zucker.”

Those calling for a change in the state’s health leadership are not limited to conservative voices such as Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt and the New York Post Editorial Board, both of which say it’s time for him to go. Senator Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), who chairs the Senate Health Committee, also echoed the sentiment, saying in an interview that Cuomo surrounded himself with “loyalists.”

Commissioner Howard Zucker at the opening of the Javits Center mass vaccination site in Manhattan, January 13th, 2021

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“I hope that [Governor Hochul] brings some new energy to many agencies so that they can be led by folks who are going to have public service at their core and not necessarily defending the governor at their core,” Rivera said. He added that there had been many times when Commissioner Zucker defended Cuomo’s mistakes or questionable choices, pointing to proposed cuts to Medicaid in the midst of the pandemic as one example.

Zucker also fiercely defended the controversial decision to allow people being discharged from the hospital to be admitted directly into nursing homes for a brief period in spring 2020. The health commissioner argued that it was, in fact, nursing home staff who largely introduced COVID-19 into the facilities.

Asked about staffing efforts, a spokesperson for Hochul said, “The transition team is actively working to recruit employees both within the executive chamber and at all state agencies, including the Department of Health, as part of a new Hochul administration. We are confident that the government will function at all levels throughout this process.”

After her swearing-in ceremony Tuesday morning, Hochul said there would be “change in the culture of Albany, [and] a fresh collaborative approach.” Later, she announced her intentions to issue a universal mask mandate for school buildings, implement a vaccination-or-test requirement for education staff and launch back-to-school testing programs. All of which will require a functioning health department to execute smoothly.

Concerns about how the New York State Department of Health operates go beyond culture and adequate staffing. Under Cuomo, employees often learned about key policy decisions from the press and then had to scramble to put them in place, the former senior staffer said. That frustration at the lack of direct communication was also echoed by Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. Acquario said strong lines of communication are crucial between the state Health Department and local health departments—and that those have been missing.

“Finding out about the next executive order or next public policy in the newspaper or on the radio, that’s not how we govern,” Acquario added. “That’s not how the public expects us to protect them.”

Acquario also told Politico that local health officials from across the state were considering holding a “no confidence” vote on Zucker even before Cuomo announced his resignation. But asked whether the commissioner should remain in the administration now, Acquario said that if Hochul thinks he’s an asset, he deserves a second chance.

“We all report to somebody, so I think his leadership was influenced by other leaders in the state,” Acquario said. “We have to see how his leadership style changes. If it doesn’t change, he needs to see the door.”

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