Lansing — Attorneys for McLaren Hospital allege that state health department workers engaged in a “cover-up” of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 and 2015 in Genesee County that is linked to Flint’s water crisis.
In a court filing, the Flint hospital is asking the Michigan Court of Appeals to uphold a Genesee County judge’s order barring Michigan Department and Health and Human Services employees from being involved in investigations of new and old cases of Legionnaires’ while a criminal probe remains underway.
“Upon further investigation of materials related to the Flint water crisis, McLaren-Flint firmly believes the institution was a victim of numerous crimes and cover-ups by state employees including the MDHHS employees” investigating the bacterial outbreak, McLaren’s attorneys wrote in a legal brief filed Friday.
In the 18-month period, the Flint area had 91 Legionnaires’ cases that resulted in 12 deaths. This summer, there has been a small resurgence of Flint-area Legionnaires’ cases.
Acting at the behest of Gov. Rick Snyder, the state health department is embroiled in growing legal battle with McLaren, the Genesee County Health Department and Attorney General Bill Schuette’s team investigating the Flint water crisis.
Last month, Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Neithercut issued an order prohibiting state health workers from interacting with officials at the county health department and McLaren Hospital on any issues related to Flint’s lead-tainted water and Legionnaires’ cases.
McLaren’s attorneys did not divulge its evidence of wrongdoing by state health workers — and the department vigorously denied the accusations Wednesday.
“MDHHS could not disagree more strongly with McLaren’s accusations about the department’s employees,” health department spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said in an email. “It is unacceptable for a local hospital to take any action that potentially threatens the public health and that a public health department would be barred from investigating such activity.”
The accusations came out in court filings made public Wednesday as another Genesee County judge set preliminary examinations for eight past and current state workers accused of crimes related to Flint’s water crisis.
The legal feud escalated late Wednesday when state health officials announced they had learned of a seventh case of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County through an indirect channel when McLaren Hospital reported the case through a statewide communicable disease database.
“At this time, the MDHHS does not have additional information about the case, including whether or not it is healthcare-associated as MDHHS is prohibited from fully investigating Legionella cases in Genesee County by a protective order,” the state health department said in a statement.
“MDHHS has no knowledge of any efforts by McLaren Hospital to appropriately assess, remediate and clear locations of patients with Legionnaires’ disease.”
Schuette’s office did not respond directly to questions from The Detroit News about whether the attorney general agrees with the McLaren hospital attorneys’ accusations that state health employees engaged in a criminal cover-up of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.
“Today’s hearing to set dates is part of our plan moving forward,” Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said in a single-sentence statement.
But court filings reveal Schuette’s special prosecutors have joined forces with McLaren in attempting to beat back the state health department’s lawsuit over the matter.
Special prosecutor Todd Flood and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton warned in a court filing Friday that allowing the state health department to be involved in Flint water matters while agency employees are under criminal investigation is akin to the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
Flood and Leyton defended their decision to cut state health officials out of the process of investigating new cases of Legionella bacteria and lead in Flint’s water.
“Given the scope of the investigation, the Office of Special Counsel and the Genesee County Prosecutor concluded the only way to ensure an unbiased and independent investigation of any issues relating to the Flint Water Crisis was to take the ‘fox out of the henhouse,’ ” Flood and Leyton wrote in a Friday court filing.
Schuette’s team also disclosed “other charges against unnamed individuals are expected” after nine government workers have been charged criminally for their alleged roles in Flint’s lead contamination crisis. Three employees in the state health department face criminal charges.
State health workers are under investigation for both their handling of test results for lead in the blood of Flint children as well as failing to publicly disclose a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area.
Legionnaires’ is a respiratory disease that causes severe pneumonia and is contracted through Legionella bacteria, which spreads in large plumbing systems.
The Genesee County spike in Legionnaires’ cases, which caused 12 deaths, corresponded with Flint’s switch to the Flint River for drinking water from April 2014 to October 2015. Of the 91 Legionnaires’ cases during that period, 51 occurred at McLaren hospital, according to the state health department.
The Snyder administration is challenging Neithercut’s protective order barring DHHS employees from interacting with officials at the Genesee County Health Department and McLaren Hospital, where some patients have recently contracted Legionnaires’ disease.
Flood and Leyton said the judge’s order protects evidence related to the 2014-2015 outbreak “and prevents any attempt to tamper with evidence or obstruct justice.”
“MDHHS does not have a right to interfere with a criminal investigation that may involve the conduct of the employees of that very same department,” Flood and Leyton wrote.
The Genesee County Health Department is now working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following the confirmation of six cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the county since June. Genesee County Health Officer Mark Valacak has said the new arrangement is working “given the circumstances.”
Snyder and the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, have contended that public health is endangered if the state health department can’t assist the Genesee County and McLaren Hospital in investigating new cases of Legionnaires’ disease.
Neithercut, who is named as a defendant in the state health department’s lawsuit, argued through an attorney that claims of a threat to public health are “simply inaccurate.”
“Under these circumstances, it would be highly inappropriate to give plaintiff access to all the information involved in the investigation into plaintiff’s employees, under the guise of trying to protect public health,” Grand Blanc attorney Timothy Winship wrote in a Friday court filing on Neithercut’s behalf. “Doing so would compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigations.”