GOP reps request probe after Justice Dept. won't investigate COVID nursing home deaths

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Three Michigan Republican lawmakers are asking a government watchdog to formally look into the U.S. Department of Justice's decision not to open a civil rights investigation into COVID-19 deaths in Michigan nursing homes.

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, wrote Monday to Inspector General Michael Horowitz at the department, noting that officials last year had requested data from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as GOP lawmakers raised questions about executive orders issued for nursing homes in some states led by Democrats.

That data request came amid the presidential campaign. It stemmed from the debate over public health policies put in place by several governors as facilities struggled to care for elderly patients with the virus in nursing homes at a time when hospitals were taxed by COVID cases.

In this Wednesday, April 1, 2020 photo, members of City Impact, a faith-based organization from Cedar Springs, sing and pray for residents and staff at Metron of Cedar Springs nursing home, in Cedar Springs, Mich. Administrators at Metron announced the nursing home has multiple residents and staff members who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Whitmer's administration at the time labeled the Department of Justice's August 2020 letter "nothing more than election year politics."

McClain, joined by Republican Reps. Tim Walberg of Tipton and Bill Huizenga of Holland, said the DOJ's decision not to investigate the nursing home issue concerned thousands in Michigan, saying "families all across the state are demanding answers for why their loved ones were locked in facilities with COVID-carrying individuals." 

"Last year, it seemed that the Department of Justice was going to finally get answers, from Governor Whitmer for the people of Michigan. On July 22nd, 2021, that hope faded with the Department’s decision," the lawmakers wrote. 

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain spoke on the House floor Monday, April 19, 2021, and said California Congresswoman Maxine Waters had condoned violence when speaking to protesters in Minnesota.

They want Horowitz to find out who made the final decision not to investigate, what data the department sought from Whitmer that "exonerated" her of any wrongdoing and whether anyone within the Biden administration or the president's office at the White House was in contact with DOJ officials regarding the matter. 

They also requested an in-person briefing from Horowitz's office on whether he chooses to open an investigation. 

In June, the Department of Justice notified Whitmer's office that it would not open an investigation of any public nursing facilities in Michigan "at this time" based on the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

"We have reviewed the information you provided along with additional information available to the department," wrote Steven Rosenbaum, chief of the special litigation section for the department's civil rights division, in a letter to Whitmer's chief legal counsel, Mark Totten.

"Based on that review, we have decided not to open a CRIPA  investigation of any public nursing facility within Michigan at this time."

Whitmer's administration has said state officials followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect residents in long-term-care facilities. 

"I want to be clear: At no point were nursing homes ever forced to take COVID-positive patients," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy told The Detroit News after the DOJ's decision was announced.

"Instead, we made the smart decision to require that residents who contracted this deadly disease be kept as far away from others as possible to prevent more people from getting sick."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, also declined to probe the state's nursing home policies during the pandemic, which have been the focus of Republican attacks for more than a year. 

In March, Nessel concluded that state Sen. Jim Runestad, a Republican from White Lake, had provided an insufficient basis that "any law has been violated" in requesting an investigation into the nursing home policies.

Runestad had argued that Whitmer’s regional hub policy might have increased the death toll in those hubs by placing patients with and without COVID-19 in the same facilities.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had designated regional hubs in April 2020 to help care for nursing home residents with the virus.

The hubs were created at existing nursing homes that were meant to set up isolated space, equipment and personnel to care for individuals with COVID who were being discharged from hospitals or resided in other facilities that couldn't properly handle them.

GOP lawmakers had called for the state to require separate facilities be set up to care for those with COVID-19. 

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.