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Snyder administration fights Schuette on health order

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday took legal action against a court order that Gov. Rick Snyder says is preventing the state from fully investigating Legionella cases in Flint and Genesee County.

The order, which limits contact between the state department and McLaren Hospital, was requested by Attorney General Bill Schuette and Genesee Prosecutor David Leyton as part of a probe into the Flint water crisis. It was issued Aug. 17 and amended Wednesday.

Details of that amendment are unclear, however, as is the Writ of Superintending Control the department filed Thursday with the Michigan Court of Appeals seeking intervention in the case.

Because Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut’s original order was confidential, responses are too, said health department spokeswoman Angela Minicuci.

“We filed confidentially in respect to the confidentiality of the first order,” she said.

Snyder on Tuesday directed the department to challenge the order, later telling reporters it “holds us back from doing our responsibility to make sure we’re reviewing public health issues.”

Schuette’s office has denied the order jeopardizes public health or prevents the Department of Health and Human Services from doing its job, but a spokeswoman said Tuesday an amended order was in the works “to alleviate misperceptions.”

“Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut recognized MDHHS is the subject of a criminal investigation and should not be performing any investigation of the Legionella or lead poisoning in Flint,” spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said. “The judge authorized this protective order to preserve the evidence in the ongoing criminal investigation. The State of Michigan may still provide health services and may still help victims of Legionella or lead poisoning.”

The original order, obtained by The Detroit News, limited direct contact between the health department and McLaren Hospital in Flint. It ordered the hospital to contact the Genesee County Health Department instead of MDHHS or the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality “for any assistance … involving any future issue relating to the City of Flint Water Crisis.”

While the department did not provide the court filing, it said Thursday’s legal action was focused on the status of one of six Legionella cases confirmed in Genesee County this year, one that “has been determined to be healthcare-associated.”

The protective order has prevented state health officials from knowing whether McLaren has taken appropriate steps to “assess, remediate and clear the patient’s location,” according to a release, which noted Michigan’s Public Health Code authorizes the department to inspect or investigate suspected outbreaks.

“This new case is important because any association with a hospital or health care facility is a potential indication of a source of infection within that health care facility,” the department said.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Thursday the administration “wants to be completely open and transparent” but is limited by the court’s confidential orders.

“We support the court unsealing both the protective order and the writ filed today,” Heaton said.

The Legionella case cited by the department was diagnosed Aug. 12 and announced by the Genesee County Health Department Aug. 16, one day before the protective order was issued.

The department says it has also been unable to investigate the status of two other local Legionella cases confirmed after the court order was issued and argues the order also restricts it from receiving and reporting related to lead or any other water quality issues in Flint.

Genesee County saw a spike of Legionella cases in 2014 and 2015, resulting in 91 diagnoses and 12 deaths. It remains unclear whether the outbreak was linked to Flint water. Residents have been unable to drink unfiltered water since October 2015, when the state confirmed elevated lead levels.