LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — A joint hearing of the House and Senate Oversight committees looking into a recent audit on nursing home deaths highlighted the differences that remain between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the Democratic administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, particularly when it comes to the state’s COVID-19 response.

AUDIT: 2,300 UNREPORTED DEATHS

The audit was requested last summer by Republicans in the state Legislature who questioned if all the COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes were reported to the state. They also believed that Whitmer allowed hospitalized COVID-19 patients who no longer needed to live in a nursing home to return there after being discharged to help hospitals facing a surge in cases. 

Whitmer said this was in line with federal guidelines. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel agreed with her, saying that nursing homes are accurately reporting virus-related deaths.

Months later, the Auditor General’s report counted more than 2,300 additional nursing home deaths, or 30% more, than MDHHS had previously reported. Hertel disputes the report.

FRUSTRATION ON BOTH SIDES

For three hours on Thursday, House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, Hertel and auditors argued about which numbers are right, if the nursing home policy was the right thing to do and even what that policy was in the first place.

“OK, so that means then that your count is overstated by an unknown amount,” Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, said.

House Oversight Committee Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, quickly responded, stating that an unknown amount isn’t true.

“If you’re going through the numbers, we want to be sure we’re being accurate here, we already listed several limitations to this, right?” Johnson said.

During the oversight hearing, the same arguments were made time and again. Republicans argued that MDHHS did not thoroughly count deaths in nursing homes. Democrats and the department pushed back, saying the Auditor General used an unreliable system of reporting and included facilities that were not covered by an April 2020 executive order issued by Whitmer to place COVID-19 patients in nursing homes.

One exchange between Johnson and Brixie highlighted the frustrations that divisions over policy surrounding COVID-19 have created for nearly two years.

“But for you to try to come in here and say, ‘Well, this is being overstated,’ is actually probably the exact opposite. It’s probably being understated,” Johnson said.

“OK, Mr. Chair, I would appreciate it if when I have the floor, you would allow me …” Brixie responded.

“I would allow you to, but when you’re saying things that are blatantly false, I have to step in. OK?” Johnson said.

In her final minutes of testimony, Hertel was asked to respond to comments she made that the auditor’s report could be political in nature.

“I think that the Auditor General’s Office is putting information out there publicly, the information they are putting out there should be accurate, and it should have citations to the types of guidance that the state departments are required to follow. Utilizing different guidance or expanding on that guidance outside of what the state’s authority, what the department’s authority is, is misleading and I think that’s concerning,” Hertel said.

In the end, all sides left the hearing pretty much where they started, though there was some discussion about standardizing reporting and regulation of all nursing, long-term and assisted living facilities. But in the current environment, finding meaningful reform in an election year could be elusive.