Michigan Senate panel votes to subpoena nursing home documents

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate Oversight Committee voted Thursday to subpoena nursing home records from the state health department, further escalating Republican lawmakers' inquiry into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said he had requested documents from the Department of Health and Human Services on March 2, but two months later, officials hadn't released any records to him.

McBroom said he's looking for communications among state health department employees about policies for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

A nursing home worker wears personal protection equipment early in Metro Detroit's COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is very easy to know what they wrote in the orders," McBroom said. "The question is, as those orders were implemented, what was the feedback to the department and what were the department's internal discussions."

For about a year, nursing homes have been a point of contention between GOP lawmakers, who control the state Legislature, and the Democratic governor's administration. According to state data, 5,712 COVID-19 deaths in Michigan have been either residents or staff of long-term care facilities, equaling about 31% of the statewide virus-linked deaths.

McBroom's original request entangled more than 55,000 documents, said Emily Schwarzkopf, director of legislative, appropriations and constituent services at the health department. The department doesn't have dedicated staff or funding to fulfill the request but is working to do so, she said.

"The department intends to comply," Schwarzkopf said.

The Department of Health and Human Services created 21 regional hubs in April 2020 to help care for nursing homes residents with COVID-19. The hubs were existing nursing homes that were supposed to have the isolated space, equipment and personnel to help elderly individuals with the virus who were being discharged from hospitals or resided in other facilities that couldn't properly handle them.

But Republican lawmakers repeatedly called for the creation of entirely separate facilities to care for those with COVID-19 to stem its spread among a vulnerable population.

Nearly half of the nursing homes that Michigan initially selected to serve as regional hubs to care for elderly individuals with COVID-19 had below-average quality ratings from the federal government. In addition, some nursing homes struggled to implement isolation and safety protocols to contain the virus.

Robert Gordon, the former director of the 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.

The new subpoena requires the health department to begin releasing at least some of the records within two weeks, McBroom said.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, made the motion to authorize the subpoena. Theis said she was "extraordinarily frustrated" with the health department's handling of McBroom's initial request for records.

"It appears obvious the department is trying to avoid producing the information," Theis said.

In March, Attorney General Dana Nessel turned down a request from state Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, to investigate Whitmer's handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Nessel, a Democrat and the state's top law enforcement official, said the Republican senator had provided insufficient indication that "any law has been violated."