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Auditor: Don’t call Michigan nursing home deaths undercount. GOP presses on.

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Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, testifies before the joint oversight committee Thursday and defends how the state tracked COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities throughout the pandemic. (Bridge photo by Yue Stella Yu)

LANSING –– Michigan Republicans are doubling down on claims the state undercounted COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, even though the state auditor general has deemed the notion “unfair.”

During a joint oversight committee hearing Thursday, Republican lawmakers accused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration of knowingly underreporting COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. They referenced a report released last week that found a 42 percent discrepancy between the state’s official count of nursing home deaths and the auditor general’s calculation. 

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The report acknowledged it arrived at a different conclusion largely because it counted more deaths than the state was required to report under federal and state requirements. The auditor general report also lists several limitations to the analysis.

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“For the long-term care facility-related deaths … we knew the department wasn’t tracking all the ones that we reflected in our letter, so we didn’t feel the word ‘underreport’ was fair. ” Auditor General Doug Ringler told lawmakers Thursday. “We cited it as a difference.”

The report linked 8,061 deaths to long-term care facilities from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to July 2021, while the state’s official count for the same period stands at 5,675.

The discrepancies intensified a yearlong partisan fight over nursing home policies for Whitmer, a first-term Democrat who is up for re-election this year. Republicans have used the report to lambaste the governor’s policies early in the pandemic to house COVID patients in regional “hubs.” Democrats deem the claims baseless politicking.

On Thursday, House Oversight Committee Chair Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, criticized the Whitmer administration for allowing nursing homes to self-report deaths, saying it was akin to “letting the fox guard the henhouse.”

He contended Whitmer should have gone beyond minimum reporting requirements and “count all the facilities.”

“They presented it as a full count, even though they full well knew this wasn’t a full count,” he said. “So it was an undercount.”

The state Republican Party, in a news release, claimed the Whitmer administration has “blood on its hands” and “should be investigated for gross negligence.”

Democrats ripped the hearing as a “snipe hunt.”

“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,’” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said in a news release.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers at the hearing that the official nursing home toll represents all self-reported deaths by long-term care facilities mandated under a state policy beginning April 2020. 

The auditor general’s report affirms the count, but it says the death toll at those facilities hit 7,010 as of July 2, 2021. The health department disputed the figure, arguing the report may have included people who were exposed outside long-term care facilities, department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin wrote in an email.

The auditor report also acknowledged several limitations. It counted deaths that occurred at facilities not required to report to the state, including adult foster care homes that served 12 or fewer residents. 

Johnson said he called the hearing to examine the “wisdom” of Whitmer’s executive order in April 2020, which designated some nursing homes as “regional hubs” and required nursing homes to set up COVID-19 patient units and accept COVID-19 patients discharged from the hospital. The policy was rescinded in June 2020.

Ringler, the auditor general, told lawmakers his report only reviewed data — and didn’t examine policies.

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“This was not an audit of the process the department followed to … compile deaths from some of the long-term care facilities (that) report them on the state’s coronavirus dashboard,” Ringler told lawmakers. “Instead, what we did was we conducted a review … using various data systems … in an attempt to identify previously unreported deaths linked to long-term care facilities.”

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, said committee members seemed to be chastising the state health department for the lack of data it was not required to collect.

“This hearing is a bit like us yelling at DHHS for not giving us data two years ago that we never asked for, and now we are mad that the department can’t read our minds,” Brixie said.

The committee should instead figure out if it wants to expand the scope of required death reporting to more nursing facilities, she said. 

Johnson told reporters he is open to bringing forward such legislation in the future.

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