Auditor general to review Michigan's COVID-related nursing home death data

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The state auditor general will conduct a review to determine the accuracy of Michigan's data pertaining to COVID-related deaths at long-term care facilities. 

Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler estimated the audit would be complete between late September and the middle of October in a letter addressed last week to Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland. 

A sign at the Ingham County Medical Care Facility, one of the state's nursing homes, in Okemos is pictured on Friday, June 5, 2020.

"We will be working with various departments' databases to address your concerns, which will impact the timing of our work," Ringler wrote. 

Ringler, who was appointed in 2014, was chosen by a majority vote of lawmakers for an eight-year term. Ringler's office is tasked with conducting "post financial and performance audits of all branches, departments, offices, boards, authorities, and other institutions," according to the office's website.

Johnson requested the Office of Auditor General undertake a "comprehensive study of reported and unreported deaths in long-term care facilities" in June following questions over the reliability of the state's data. 

"I am confident that the Auditor General will provide us with a more accurate picture of the deadly results of Gov. Whitmer's decision to place COVID positive patients in long-term care facilities,” said Johnson, who chairs the House Oversight Committee. 

The Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that it had received a request from the Office of Auditor General and welcomed the opportunity to meet with the team.

"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," the department said in a statement.

Johnson's request followed June 3 testimony from Michigan health director Elizabeth Hertel, during which she told the Oversight Committee that she believed the state's tracking of COVID-19 deaths linked to nursing homes was accurate. Her testimony came amid a longstanding dispute between the GOP-led Legislation and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the governor's nursing home policies during the pandemic. 

Hertel said during the hearing that the data gathered by the state was self-reported and she did not believe "nursing homes have any reason or incentive to try to hide the deaths that have occurred in their residents." Nursing homes could lose their licenses if they provided false information. 

As of the week of June 30, the state reported about 4,216 resident deaths connected to a skilled nursing facility, 938 linked to homes for the aged and 526 linked to adult foster care facilities with more than 13 residents. Together, those deaths make up about 29% of Michigan's 19,775 COVID-related deaths. 

Some have posited the state's nursing home death numbers are under-counted for several reasons, including that the total number doesn't account for deaths at thousands of small, sometimes home-based adult foster care facilities. 

Johnson argued during the June hearing that the state's long-term care facility death data could be lower than reality because the number doesn't include all long-term care facilities. 

The auditor general's review of data could provide a "more accurate picture of the disastrous results" of Whitmer's nursing home policies, Johnson said in a Wednesday statement.

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.