Senate GOP: Give prosecutors up to $250K for nursing home probes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved a bill Thursday that would provide state grants to county prosecutors who investigate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal would set aside $1.25 million in general fund dollars for the grants, the most recent move in a high-stakes and bitter feud between Republicans in the state Legislature and the Democratic governor who has the power to veto bills. 

The new spending bill still has to go the state House and would need Whitmer's signature. The proposal caps individual grants at $250,000 and would require local prosecutors who receive the money to provide quarterly reports.

The vote came 10 days after Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, declined a request from a Republican senator to launch her own investigation. Nessel said Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, had provided insufficient indication that "any law has been violated."

But Senate Republicans argued Thursday that they have to get to the bottom of what happened in long-term care facilities during the pandemic. And one county prosecutor has already begun probing the matter.

"We owe it to the grieving families of this state to get answers," Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said during a speech on the Senate floor.

But Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said the spending proposal was based on politics, not facts. Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, attempted to amend the bill to allow for investigations into coordination between policy makers and Republican political campaigns on the nursing home inquiries.

"It’s infuriating," Bayer said of the Republicans' bill at one point.

After the Senate session, Hertel said the bill was an example of quid pro quo.

"If you are willing to investigate the governor, then we’re willing to give you money," Hertel said. "I’ve never seen anything like that."

The Senate approved the proposal in a party-line 20-15 vote.

Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy said the state acted quickly to slow the spread of the virus in nursing homes, following federal guidelines.

" As a result, Michigan has a lower rate of nursing home deaths than the national average," Leddy said. "Rather than working with us to protect seniors, Republican lawmakers actively denied science, turned down federal aid, and refused to ask residents to wear masks — putting seniors’ lives at much greater risk."

Republicans in the Legislature and Whitmer's administration have been battling over the state's response to the pandemic in nursing homes for about 10 months. GOP lawmakers have contended that elderly individuals with COVID-19 should have been cared for in separate facilities to prevent the spread of the virus among a vulnerable population.

Instead, the Democratic governor's policies have focused on treating elderly individuals in isolated areas of existing nursing homes or in 21 so-called regional hubs — other existing nursing homes chosen to be part of the pandemic response plan.

About one-third of Michigan's 15,935 total COVID-19 deaths have been linked to long-term care facilities.

Robert Gordon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told state lawmakers in September that there were "many complexities" to establishing entirely separate facilities to care for nursing home residents with COVID-19. They included staffing and equipping the buildings and moving people from one place to another, he said.

Peter Lucido

Earlier this month, Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido, a former state senator, called for his county's medical examiner's office to create a committee for reviewing nursing home deaths related to COVID-19 and announced an online form for families to file with law enforcement to investigate fatalities. 

Lucido has said he feels he "has an obligation to review any complaints for possible prosecution."

"We want to help people resolve questions they may have and help provide closure for some of them," he said. The online form for reporting concerns is available on the prosecutor's website.

On March 15, Nessel announced she wouldn't investigate the Whitmer administration's nursing home policies. She said she saw no evidence "to suggest that Gov. Whitmer’s efforts to contain COVID-19 in Michigan’s nursing homes resulted in increased deaths."

"The suggestion that these public health policy decisions, by themselves, should be investigated because different approaches could have resulted in fewer deaths is inappropriate and violates well-established ethical guidelines for investigations by law enforcement agencies," Nessel wrote.

Staff Writers Mike Martindale and Beth LeBlanc contributed