Michigan Republicans seek nursing home records from Whitmer, float potential subpoenas

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Two Republican state lawmakers who lead an oversight committee are asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration to hand over internal documents related to COVID-19 and nursing homes in Michigan.

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, and Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, sent a three-page letter making the request of the Democratic governor Thursday. In the letter, they floated the idea of issuing subpoenas to obtain the records if Whitmer doesn't provide them.

"We make these requests in good faith and look forward to your administration’s cooperation," the letter says. "However, we would be remiss if we failed to note that the JSC (joint select committee) possesses the statutory authority to subpoena this information should that need arise.

"We hope that subpoenas can be avoided, but please know that we are prepared to exercise this authority if necessary."

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Tuesday. June 23, 2020.

The Republican-controlled Legislature formed the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in April. The resolution that launched it says the panel has subpoena power. Hall is the chairman of the committee. Nesbitt is the majority vice chairman.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Thursday that the administration is reviewing the request.

The governor's policies for handling COVID-19 in nursing homes, which focus on caring for elderly individuals with the virus in isolated areas of existing facilities, have faced Republican opposition for weeks.

GOP lawmakers have argued that the governor should have set up wholly separate centers or field hospitals to treat individuals with the coronavirus to limit its spread among the vulnerable populations in nursing homes.

"I think we're doing everything in our power to protect people who don't have COVID from getting infected by people who do given the facilities that we have and given the need to treat people in facilities that are appropriate for them," said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in May.

As of June 15, the state had tracked 1,947 deaths linked to COVID-19 among nursing home residents and 20 deaths among staff. The totals accounted for 34% of the state's overall COVID-19 death toll. The tally doesn't included deaths in assisted living facilities.

Also on June 15, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House, where Democrats have a majority, wrote to Whitmer, asking her to provide documents and brief staffers about the state's handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes.

Whitmer responded that she wouldn't cooperate with their inquiry, saying the panel's investigatory authority doesn't lie with individual members and the committee's jurisdiction cannot be "stretched" to include the health and safety of a state and its residents. 

In the new letter, Hall and Nesbitt said their requests "will not cause the same concern" given they're coming from a committee of the Michigan Legislature.

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall

Among their requests, the lawmakers are seeking "all information, documents, and communications between the Office of the Governor and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services regarding COVID-19 mitigation in nursing homes."

They also want documents related to "any complaint involving COVID-19 in a nursing home submitted to any executive branch entity" and communications between the governor's office and nursing home representatives.

Under Michigan law, communications by the governor's office and Michigan lawmakers aren't usually subject to open records requests that can be made by members of the public.

Hall and Nesbitt asked Whitmer to respond to their request within seven days "that you will provide the information requested by a date certain."

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.