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Michigan auditor general vows ‘comprehensive’ review of nursing home deaths

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced skeptical questions from Republican lawmakers about whether the state has accurately counted the number of nursing home deaths due to COVID-19. (Bridge photo by Dale G Young)

LANSING—Michigan’s auditor general will conduct a “comprehensive study of reported and unreported deaths” in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as requested by a Republican lawmaker.

The review, revealed Wednesday, follows months of scrutiny by GOP legislators, who have questioned whether seniors were put in harm’s way under an early pandemic policy from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that created regional “hubs” for infected patients.

State Rep. Steve Johnson, a Wayland Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, last month asked Auditor General Doug Ringler to review state death counts after Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel acknowledged they may be “low.”

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As of early June, 38 of 311 long-term care facilities statewide had failed to report COVID-19 death data, as required, and the state did not require reports from facilities that serve 12 or fewer residents.

Ringler, in a June 30 letter released Wednesday by Johnson’s office, said he intended to “act upon” the request for a review. But it could take months, Ringler said, predicting the audit will not be complete until late September or October.

“We will be working with various departments’ databases to address your concerns, which will impact the timing of our work,” he wrote.

The Michigan Department of Human Services confirmed late Wednesday it has received a “request” from the auditor general and “we… welcome the opportunity to meet with his team,” said spokesman Bob Wheaton. 

“From day one, we followed the best data and science from the CDC to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect Michiganders, including vulnerable residents in long-term-care facilities,” he said. 

The Michigan Constitution gives the auditor general authority to conduct performance and financial reviews of all state departments. The post is appointed by the Legislature, which unanimously approved Ringler’s hire in 2014.

Nursing homes in Michigan and across the country were hit hard early in the pandemic, when the virus spread through congregate care facilities amid a shortage of personal protective equipment.

Michigan’s official running count of 5,680 deaths at long-term care facilities accounts for more than a quarter of the state’s 19,775 deaths. But it’s possible deaths were undercounted, according to information first reported in late May by Deadline Detroit and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Hertel, the state health director, stood by the official nursing home death counts in June testimony before Johnson’s oversight committee.

“What the nursing homes are reporting are accurate,” she said at the time, adding they had no “reason or incentive to hide (deaths).”

Johnson, in his June request, asked the auditor general to review:

  • State health department processes and procedures for obtaining death reports from long-term care facilities
  • Vital record reports that could include unreported deaths 
  • All death records to see if nursing homes self-reported accurate counts to the state
  • And a “proper accounting” of deaths in any aged and adult foster care facilities that were not required to report deaths to the state

In a Wednesday statement, Johnson said he is “confident” the auditor general will provide a “more accurate picture” of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities.

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