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Opinion: State should not limit nursing home beds amid pandemic

Diana Prichard

A policy that forced nursing homes that were under 80% capacity to accept COVID-19-positive patients was necessary because we didn’t have enough long-term care facilities to handle the pandemic any other way.

That’s according to Robert Gordon, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, who testified before the Senate Oversight Committee on May 27.

Now, in a painfully ironic turn of events, the state is trying to further restrict how many of those beds we have, in a state with one of the highest percentages of elderly residents in the country.  

The Legislature should use its authority to override the Certificate of Need Commision, writes Prichard.

The new rule will require every nursing home in each of the state’s eight certificate-of-need regions to have run at 85% occupancy over the previous year before any of the nursing homes in a region is allowed to add even one bed.

It was approved by the state’s Certificate of Need Commission on June 18, despite receiving more opposition than support during a public comment hearing earlier this year and obvious parallels to disastrous pandemic policies that resulted in the brutal beating of a 75-year-old man, and may have contributed to an increase in both coronavirus cases and deaths in the state.

The commission is a little-known cog in the medical bureaucracy that makes health care more expensive, less accessible, and lower quality for Michigan residents. The 11 members of the commission are appointed by the governor and unaccountable to citizens. Made up of influential industry insiders, the commission’s lack of accountability is highlighted by brazen decisions like this one.

The new rule would be an unconscionable move under any circumstances. Michigan has the 12th-oldest population in the nation and a median age over 50 in 21 of our 83 counties. Tying nursing home beds to occupancy reduces options and increases costs for Michigan’s seniors and their families just when we need affordable care options most.

It’s especially bad during a pandemic in which the department’s own director is telling us limits in bed availability were a key driver in policies that may have killed more of our elderly citizens.

Fortunately, there is a state law that allows the people’s elected representatives in the Legislature to override the commission’s rules, and there’s recent precedent for them exercising that option. Late last year, lawmakers blocked a CON rule that would have made life-saving cancer treatments harder to access.

They can and should exercise that authority again, saving Michigan residents from an ill-conceived crackdown on vitally needed nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

We cannot bring back the lives lost as a result of forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients whether they were prepared to care for them or not. But we can make sure another ill-conceived occupancy-based rule doesn’t unnecessarily harm Michigan’s seniors and their families in the future. It’s up to Michigan’s lawmakers to do so.

Diana Prichard is community engagement director at Americans for Prosperity-Michigan.