Lawmakers grill Michigan health director over nursing home COVID deaths

“Thousands of Michigan’s most vulnerable residents died, but all the state’s health director seems to be concerned with is providing political cover for Governor Whitmer,” observer said.

Updated: January 21, 2022 - 12:19am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Michigan may never know the actual number of deaths resulting from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order to place COVID-19 patients in long-term care (LTC) facilities.

That conclusion was the only verifiable takeaway from Thursday’s Senate and House Joint Oversight Committee meeting, where state senators and representatives grilled Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler, Deputy Auditor General and Director of Audit Operations Laura Hirst, and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel.

The committee meeting spotlighted sharp differences between the Democratic Whitmer administration and the nonpartisan Auditor General (AG). It also brought into stark view thepartisan divisions between Senate and House legislators; namely, Democrats who either disparaged the AG’s methodology or defended Whitmer’s EO 2020-50; and Republicans, who argued the governor erred when she issued the order, and depicted the administration’s underreporting of the number of LTC deaths as a cover-up for her failed policy.

Hertel, a Whitmer appointee, disputed the AG’s findings in its report issued to House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, on Jan. 12. The report stated the total number of COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities was 8,061, 42% higher than the state’s self-reported 5,675 deaths.

Hertel argued the AG report tallied deaths from facilities that did not fall under the federal rubric of LTCs. However, as noted by Johnson, Whitmer’s order also included facilities beyond the federal classification.

“All of these long-term care facilities were subject to Executive Order 50,” Johnson said. “Therefore, they should all be counted, not just those that we're required to self-report.”

Johnson said the report took more than six months to complete, and the finished results displayed the diligence and thoroughness of the independent AG’s office.

“Thousands of Michigan’s most vulnerable residents died, but all the state’s health director seems to be concerned with is providing political cover for Governor Whitmer,” Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, said in a statement. “We haven’t seen politicians argue semantics like this since President Clinton waffled over the definition of the word ‘is.’”

Sachs reiterated the MFF’s demand for a thorough investigation into the governor’s order that placed COVID-19 patients in nursing homes and LTFs, noting the executive order was opposed by the state’s nursing home association as well as several members of her own party.

“If the Auditor General corroborated the Whitmer administration's undercounting of nursing home deaths, they would be applauding the credibility of this report," Eric Ventimiglia, executive director for Michigan Rising Action, said in a statement. “The fact is that the Governor's policy had deadly consequences for Michigan seniors, then her administration covered it up and undercounted deaths by 42 percent.”

The Joint Oversight Committee grew heated at times, especially between political foes Johnson and Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, and the AG’s Ringler.

“As it relates to the counting and the over-counting that your report acknowledges occurred … you face some limitations in accurately counting,” Brixie asked Ringler. “Do you know how many, do you have any idea how many, did you make an attempt of how many deaths were over-counted based on these types of things you were unable to exclude?”

Ringer responded that the AG conducted data analytic work, but did not look at specific cases when compiling its report.

“So that means then that your count is overstated by an unknown amount,” Brixie responded.

At this point, Johnson interjected. Noting the limitations of data collected by the state, he said: “Is this 8,061 number going to be exactly accurate to each individual? Highly unlikely, but this is the most accurate count we have as to-date. It’s my understanding the number could be actually higher than what we see here. But, you know what, we actually finally have someone willing to go in and try to get a somewhat accurate count.”

Johnson said DHHS did nothing to verify the accuracy of the self-reported numbers from the LTCs, nor did they count the COVID-19 deaths from LTCs not required to report by federal law. Rather than say the numbers are overstated, Johnson said, he’d claim they were probably understated.

“Steve Johnson is twisting the report’s findings to push his baseless, political narrative. Instead of accepting the Auditor General’s conclusion – that Michigan ‘accurately posted’ COVID-19 deaths as reported directly from facilities,” Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Johnson is wasting tax dollars and exploiting the lives lost and families devastated, all to promote a dishonest, partisan narrative that ignores the real transparency of a full audit, relying instead on a political ‘review.’”