Michigan Republicans' efforts to hang deliberate underreporting of Covid deaths in state nursing homes on the Whitmer administration appeared to fall flat in a Thursday hearing before the joint House and Senate Oversight Committees in Lansing. Auditor General Doug Ringler, whose report the committees were examining, told members he didn't think that charge was fair.
"For the long-term care facility related deaths or linked deaths, we knew the department wasn't tracking all of the ones that we reflected in our letter, so we didn't feel the word underreport was fair. We cited it as a difference," Ringler told lawmakers, referencing the letter with his office's findings he recently sent to the Legislature.
At no point during the three-hour-long legislative hearing did Ringler say the Michigan health department violated the law, intentionally misled the public or tried to cover up deaths.
That was, essentially, the argument made by Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, who also testified Thursday. That her department and the auditor general reached two different counts -- and that the state's was lower -- was not the question, but rather why it happened. Hertel said the auditor counted deaths in homes that were not required to report to the state, while the state counted only those that did.
The difference in the numbers has led some Republicans to accuse the Whitmer administration of underreporting deaths in these facilities. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staff faced the same charges, and were forced to admit they had, indeed, deliberately downplayed the numbers out of fear the Trump administration would use the true number as a political weapon against Cuomo.
In the Free Press report:
The auditor cited a variety of sources, noting the health department could have done more to find deaths than rely on facilities to report information to the state. It countered renewed claims from Hertel about the veracity of some data by noting it was cross-referenced with additional data sources, including Medicare information and other systems used by the state. Auditors easily corroborated 85% of one subset of deaths refuted by the health department and likely could have verified more, a staff member said.
The difference between the two reports is 2,386 deaths, with about half of those coming at adult foster care facilities licensed for 12 or fewer beds, some exempt homes for the aged and skilled-nursing hospices.