by Scott McClallen
The Michigan House Oversight Committee on Thursday heard opposing testimony related to whether Michigan is undercounting COVID-19 nursing home deaths.
For over a year, Republicans have alleged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order to place COVID-19 infected patients into nursing homes with non-infected seniors contributed to an excess number of deaths than otherwise would have happened. In March, more than 50 lawmakers asked the federal government to investigate Whitmer’s policy. The death data from Michigan’s nursing homes could be compared to states with similar senior populations that didn’t pursue similar nursing home policy.
Steve Delie, an attorney for the Mackinac Center For Public Policy, sued the Michigan Department for Health and Human Services (MDHHS) on behalf of reporter Charlie LeDuff, testified before the committee on Thursday. Delie argued the nursing home and long-term care COVID-19 death count in Michigan isn’t accurate, saying MDHHS enacted an accountability check between March 1 and June 30 of 2020, where it located 648 deaths out of a pool of 1,468 vital records deaths that could be traced back to a nursing home facility.
Delie said that’s a 44% rate for nursing home deaths found in vital records. But since then, the state has found about 5,500 additional vital records and, assuming the same rate holds, “that’s an additional 2,400 nursing home deaths in Michigan that haven’t been accounted for,” he said. “In all likelihood, that’s probably a significant underestimate.”
When LeDuff accused MDHHS last week of undercounting nursing home deaths, MDHHS didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
“When asked, [MDHHS spokesperson Bob] Wheaton indicated to us that this was a review that they can’t do regularly because it’s too time-consuming and too resource-intensive,” Delie said.
Delie called for an investigation into nursing home deaths and for the state to compare death certificates with death figures reported by the nursing homes so the state can use the data to prepare for the next pandemic and find closure.
“The state of Michigan deserves to know who died and where,” Delie said.
Skilled nursing facilities reported 4,257 deaths with COVID-19 as a sole or contributing factor. When added to homes for the aged and adult foster care, long-term care facilities account for 5,663 deaths, not counting residents and staff deaths, or about 30% of the statewide COVID-19 death total.
Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, pushed for finding more accurate numbers.
“I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we are going to have the exact right number to the individual. But we know for a fact that the number has been undercounted, and there are ways to get closer,” Johnson said.
But MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel pushed back, telling lawmakers deaths tracked through vital records are already reported through the nursing homes. So adding one to another is double-counting, she said.
“The number that is being reported is accurate,” Hertel said. “Because the number we have reported on our website is self-reported from the nursing homes.”
Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos agreed with Hertel.
“We have not been presented with any facts or evidence today that would support the preconceived conclusion,” Brixie said.
Johnson cast doubt on the accuracy of self-reported nursing home deaths.
Hertel responded, saying, “I don’t think that the nursing homes have any reason or incentive to try to hide the deaths that have occurred with their residents.”
Hertel said death certificate data isn’t reflective of nursing home deaths, which is why MDHHS relies on nursing homes’ self-reported information.
MDHHS will need to validate against self-reported numbers, Hertel said.
Hertel added: “We don’t at this point actually have the data points that we need to do that match, so what we need aren’t addresses; what we actually need is more identifying information about an individual so that we can run a match on other more personally identifying pieces of information.”
While Hertel said she believes the death count at nursing homes is accurate, some of the smaller facilities aren’t required to report death data.
After the Thursday hearing, Johnson told The Detroit News many long-term care facilities aren’t reporting COVID-19 statistics to the state, including thousands of small adult foster care facilities.
“We know that the long-term care facility death numbers that the department is giving are low,” Johnson said. “They’re all but admitting that. I don’t trust them to do their own investigation.”
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.