Gov. Whitmer won’t cooperate with GOP inquiry on virus in nursing homes

The Detroit News reports Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declined a request by congressional Republicans to turn over records and brief committee staffers on the state’s handling of the novel coronavirus in Michigan’s nursing homes.

Whitmer indicated to Republicans on a U.S. House coronavirus committee that she wouldn’t cooperate with their inquiry, saying the panel’s investigatory authority does not lie with individual members and the committee’s jurisdiction cannot be “stretched” to include the health and safety of a state and its residents.

“I hope that as members of a federal body tasked with oversight of the federal executive branch during this unprecedented public health crisis you refrain from encroaching on the sovereign power of a state government to deal with state matters,” Whitmer wrote in a letter dated Friday.

The Republicans, who are in the minority, lack the power to compel testimony or documents from the Democratic governor without the rest of the committee.

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the panel’s top Republican, on Monday blasted Whitmer for refusing to cooperate and blamed Democrats on the panel for not demanding answers.

“We will continue to call on our Democrat colleagues to join us in getting to the bottom of this and look for other ways to obtain the information being withheld,” Scalise said in a statement. “Her stonewalling will not deter us from getting the answers these families deserve.”

Scalise last week wrote to Whitmer and four other Democratic governors about their states’ handling of virus cases in nursing homes.

Whitmer’s administration has been criticized by state Republicans and at least one Democratic lawmaker over decisions to permit the housing of COVID-positive residents in the same facilities as vulnerable individuals without the virus.

Whitmer and her health advisers have stressed that no nursing home was forced to take a COVID patient that the facility didn’t believe it could safely care for in isolation.

At least 1,979 nursing home residents in Michigan had died of COVID-19 through Sunday, representing a third of confirmed virus deaths in the state. Health officials have reported 7,137 known cases of COVID-19 among nursing facility residents and 3,100 cases among staff.

An initial executive order from Whitmer in April said nursing homes with a census below 80% had to create a unit dedicated to the care of COVID-19-affected residents, and that facilities “must accept the return” of a resident who had been hospitalized if it could meet the medical needs of the resident, the order said.

The purpose at the time was to take pressure off of overwhelmed hospitals while caring for individuals in an appropriate setting.

Melissa Samuel, president of an association representing Michigan nursing homes, has said that subsequent guidance and orders from the state gave facilities “flexibility” to decide whether to take an individual with COVID-19 based on whether they had the staff, equipment and isolation space necessary to care for virus patients.

Whitmer’s administration declined an early suggestion by Samuel — who is president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan — that empty facilities be used as quarantine centers to “avoid widespread infection.”

Committee Republicans, led by Scalise, wrote in their June 15 letter that Whitmer’s nursing home policies likely contributed to “thousands of elderly deaths in Michigan.”