Nessel dismisses GOP request to probe nursing home deaths as partisan

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Attorney General Dana Nessel has dismissed as partisan a request by congressional Republicans to investigate the Whitmer administration’s policies on coronavirus in nursing homes.

Nessel, in response to a letter led by House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, noted that the lawmakers didn’t make similar inquiries into GOP governors — only Democratic state executives in Michigan, New York, New Jersey, California and Pennsylvania.  

Nessel wrote Monday that she was "deeply troubled" that the Republican lawmakers' concern "does not extend to all of the nation's elderly." 

"Genuine concern about the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities, like our elderly population, should compel you to review all states’ policies to determine if and how they impacted medical outcomes within those communities, not just those that are led by Democratic governors,” Nessel wrote.

“I have not — and will not — launch a criminal investigation simply because of someone’s political affiliation.” 

Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Nessel was responding to Scalise and other Republicans on a U.S. House coronavirus committee, whose letter last week was also signed by the six Republicans in Michigan's congressional delegation. 

Scalise, the top Republican on the coronavirus panel, said Monday the idea that Nessel got a letter because Whitmer is a Democrat is "absurd and ignores reality."

"She got one because her governor was one of only five in the country that forced nursing homes to take in COVID-positive patients and then refused to answer questions about that deadly order," Scalise said in a statement. 

"The 45 states that did not receive letters are led by both Democrats and Republicans because they didn’t have disastrous orders like these."

Scalise previously wrote to Whitmer, who declined a request to turn over records and brief committee staffers on the state's handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. 

Whitmer has faced criticism for policies that permit the housing of individuals with the virus in isolated areas of existing nursing facilities.

The state had tracked 2,064 deaths and 7,304 cases of COVID-19 among nursing home residents through Thursday. 

Michigan GOP lawmakers have said the governor should have set up separate centers or field hospitals to care for individuals with the coronavirus to limit its spread among the vulnerable populations in nursing facilities.

The U.S. House Republicans claimed that Whitmer's nursing home policies "likely contributed to the thousands of elderly deaths in Michigan," alleging that state officials deviated from guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

Whitmer on Monday said the state followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it came to nursing homes and is always willing to share the “data and decision-making” regarding that policy.

The governor also said she didn’t have time “to play partisan games” in regards to the request from Congress and called the GOP lawmakers' targeted request “unfortunate.”

“These were letters that were sent to five Democratic governors in battleground states in large part,” Whitmer said in an interview on WDET-FM (101.9).

“They didn’t send one to Florida, which has been fudging their numbers and now has exponential growth that is unchecked. They didn’t send it to Texas, which is in the same boat.”

Whitmer noted Michigan’s percentage of deaths in nursing homes was “a lot smaller than other states,” but that the pandemic’s novel complications meant the state had to make decisions with the limited information it had at the time.

“If I could go back in a time machine with the knowledge that we have today, back three months, would some decisions be (made) differently?” she said. “Yes.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana

The congressional Republicans had asked Nessel to expand her "investigation" to include an April 15 order by Whitmer saying certain skilled nursing facilities "must accept the return" of a resident who had been hospitalized if it could meet the medical needs of the resident. 

They also requested documents, information and communications between Nessel's office, Whitmer's office and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services regarding the investigation of nursing homes since Jan. 1. 

Nessel, whose office has not publicly acknowledged a nursing home probe, said she was "surprised" the panel would make such a request without first verifying if she is in fact investigating. 

She highlighted federal data indicating Michigan had fewer or similar numbers of COVID cases among nursing home residents as Louisiana, Ohio, Georgia and Texas, and that Michigan had fewer nursing home deaths than Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

"But again, I'm aware of no congressional request for investigation made to those attorneys general," Nessel wrote. 

Scalise said Michigan was one of five states with the "strictest must-admit orders" for nursing homes.

"The grieving families affected by Governor Whitmer’s disastrous decision deserve answers, plain and simple, and we’re not going to stop asking until we get them," he said.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.