Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoes bill directing COVID-19 patients away from nursing homes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed Friday a bill from the GOP-controlled Legislature that would have shifted elderly people with COVID-19 away from nursing homes and into entirely separate facilities.

The bill was a direct challenge to the Whitmer administration's current handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has focused on caring for those with the virus in isolated spaces of existing homes.

In a letter explaining her veto, the Democratic governor said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, was based on "the false premise that isolation units created within existing facilities are somehow insufficient to protect seniors."

Advantage Living Center Roseville located at 25375 Kelly Road, Roseville, MI
Max Ortiz/The Detroit News

"Instead of protecting seniors, this bill would require the state to create COVID-19-only facilities, forcing hospitals and many nursing homes to send COVID-19-positive patients to such facilities without any requirement for consent, doctor approval or notification to the patient or their family," Whitmer added. "The legislation fails to explain how such facilities would be staffed or paid for, or how frail residents would be protected during the potentially traumatic transfer from one facility to another."

The governor's handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes has been a target of Republican criticism. About 33% of the state's deaths linked to the virus have been nursing home residents or employees, according to state data.

Every state with coronavirus nursing home guidelines like those of the Whitmer administration has since shifted to a policy similar to what Republicans proposed, Lucido said Friday.

“I am very disappointed and saddened that the governor vetoed this extremely important and commonsense legislation,” the Republican senator said in a statement. “Politics should not prevail over the health and safety of our seniors and health care workers, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate and House to consider passing a veto override. We owe this to our citizens, especially the seniors and vulnerable members of our communities who cannot speak for themsevles.”

Earlier this month, a Detroit News review of inspection reports for the 45 nursing homes with the most deaths linked to COVID-19 found that nearly half had been cited in the last four months for failing to follow infection control, isolation or staffing policies.

In April, Whitmer's administration created regional hubs — 21 nursing homes that are supposed to have the equipment and capacity to care for those with COVID-19 in separate areas from residents without the virus. The hubs can receive stable COVID-19 patients being discharged from hospitals and residents from other facilities not capable of properly caring for them.

But critics, such as Lucido, have argued that the policy has spurred the spread of COVID-19 within vulnerable populations as some nursing homes have struggled to isolate infected residents inside their buildings. Lucido has referenced the Whitmer administration's paying regional hubs $5,000 per bed in the program and $200 per day for occupied beds.

"They incentivized bringing COVID patients into nursing homes," Lucido has said. "They sweetened the deal."

The bill, which Whitmer vetoed, passed the Senate 24-13 and the House 74-34. In the House, 17 Democrats joined Republicans in support.

It would have banned nursing homes from admitting or retaining an individual starting Sept. 1 who tests positive for COVID-19 unless the person had recovered or unless a nursing home could provide care in a separate building.

Nursing homes unable to provide care in a separate building would need to move the resident to a field hospital, a facility used during a hospital's surge capacity or a "dedicated facility." The policy would apply only to those individuals inadmissible to a hospital.

The departments of Health and Human Services and Licensing and Regulatory Affairs would have had to create at least one "dedicated facility" per the state's eight health care regions by Sept. 1. 

Whitmer labeled the bill inadequate and said the Michigan Senior Advocates Council asked her to veto it because it “lacks clarity, provides an unrealistic timeline and fails to offer critical details to ensuring quality of care."

In June, the governor established the Michigan Nursing Homes COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force. The group will recommend an action plan on how to prepare nursing homes for a future wave of COVID-19 cases by Aug. 31.

Lucido said he hopes the Legislature overrides Whitmer's veto, which would require two-thirds support in the House and Senate.

The GOP lawmaker said constituents will want to see their representatives support the override. "I fear for those who don’t say yes to the override," Lucido added.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed