Did Michigan cover up nursing home COVID deaths like New York?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may not be the only governor who covered up the deaths of vulnerable senior citizens during the pandemic. We’re suing the state of Michigan to release information regarding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order that funneled nursing home residents hospitalized with COVID-19 back into nursing homes – information the state is hiding from the public. Michigan citizens deserve to know if Gov. Whitmer, like Gov. Cuomo, has hidden the true number of deaths resulting from her dangerous decision.

Gov. Whitmer issued her order on April 15, 2020, following Gov. Cuomo’s similar action on March 25. It has since come to light that New York authorities, following pressure from the governor’s office, deliberately undercounted the number of patients forced back into nursing homes and the number of deaths that resulted. The patient numbers were more than 40% higher, while deaths were more than 75% higher.

Cuomo and Whitmer’s lack of transparency

The public had a right to know these grim facts, yet it took a five-month-long lawsuit by New York’s Empire Center for Public Policy to discover some of the most important information. Gov. Cuomo simply wasn’t transparent – and neither is the state of Michigan.

Michigan is one of only two states where the governor is exempt from Freedom of Information laws, and the only state where that exemption is written into statute. Thanks to this exemption, the governor has no obligation to produce any records whatsoever, despite making decisions affecting the lives of every Michigander.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Feb. 24, 2021, in Lansing, Michigan.

Gov. Whitmer has used this veil of secrecy to act with impunity. Her office has almost single-handedly dictated the state’s COVID-19 policies, without disclosing the data she has used to make her decisions. After the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the statute Gov. Whitmer relied on for her emergency authority, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services became the vessel for COVID decision-making. Yet while that department is subject to FOIA, it has not been any more transparent. The state continues to release information about the number of cases and deaths but not the underlying records.

This is unacceptable. The state is asking voters to simply accept it’s published data, without the chance to verify the records used to create them. The Cuomo scandal demonstrates how dangerous it is to simply trust politicians. Access to information is essential to accountability. It’s also a basic sign of respect for voters. Citizens and media outlets shouldn’t have to sue to know what their government is doing and why.

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That’s why we’re suing the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. After the state began adding additional deaths to its daily tally, known as vital records deaths, one of us (Mr. LeDuff) requested the underlying data of these newly added deaths. This included the age of the deceased, date of death, when the death was added to the published data, and most importantly, which cases that led to death originated at a long-term care facility or nursing home.

Michigan citizens deserve to know

While the department could have easily released this data, it claimed the details would reveal protected health information. Yet records with even more specific data — such as death certificates — are already available for public purchase, and the department has released some information drawn from these records already.

The department is basically saying it can release information as it pleases, but ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with the raw data. Our lawsuit rejects this anti-transparency approach, and asks the courts to apply our transparency law fairly. If we are successful, the department will be required to release the data behind Gov. Whitmer’s pandemic policies — including the facts involving deaths in nursing homes.

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It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to obtain this critical data. Gov. Whitmer made the same policy choice as Gov. Cuomo, forcing contagious senior citizens into close proximity with other medically vulnerable people. In fact, her policy, a similar version of which is still in effect today, went even farther, forcing some non-senior patients into nursing homes, including a 20-year-old. Michigan citizens deserve to know why she did this, and whether our governor is telling the truth about the consequences.

Steve Delie is the policy lead for open government and transparency at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Charlie LeDuff is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and the host of No BS Hour with Charlie LeDuff

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