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State lawmakers weigh changes for nursing home residents recovering from COVID-19

Sen. Peter Lucido

In an often emotional hearing that raised more questions than it answered, the state Senate health policy committee heard testimony on a bill that would prohibit nursing homes without COVID-19 positive patients from caring for patients with the disease. 

Nursing home residents account for more than one third of Michigan’s COVID-19 deaths, according to the state health department. 



The bill, introduced by state Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Charter Township), also proposes that the state health department build and operate new facilities across the state for the exclusive care of nursing home residents with COVID-19. State Sen. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek), a committee member, testified in favor of the bill, saying that it “[moves] us in the right direction.” 


But Democratic committee members raised serious concerns about the bill, an amendment to the Michigan public health code that fills less than a page. 


During one heated exchange, committee chairman state Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) intervened.


“This is an emotional situation, and I think everybody in this room understands that,” he said. “We’re here to protect people. But if we’re going to start lobbing stones at each other, I will gavel down.” 


There was no vote Thursday — once Lucido has a revision, it will return to the committee — but the scene unfolds at a moment when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, advocates for nursing home residents, and other lawmakers are contemplating big changes to the way Michigan has been dealing with residents who test positive for COVID-19. 


Just this week, MDHHS announced a slate of new rules for nursing homes, including testing requirements, fines for failing to report COVID-19 related data, and special support for facilities struggling with infection control. 


And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that extended her regional hub policy, which designates isolation wings within nursing homes across the state as places for COVID-19 patients to recover. 


Critics of the policy say placing healthy and infected patients in the same facility is far too dangerous for a population so susceptible to the disease. In Lansing, this concern has resulted in proposals and resolutions ranging from the substantive to the rhetorical. 


State Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) leads a work group of Democratic representatives now collaborating on legislation that would improve infection control in skilled nursing facilities. 


According to state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), who’s part of the group, they pushed for some of the testing requirements that MDHHS issued on Monday, as well as changes to the governor’s original executive order that gave nursing facilities more flexibility in deciding where to transfer COVID-19 patients they couldn’t safely care for on their own. 


State Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Township) introduced a resolution that criticizes Whitmer’s regional hub policy, but doesn’t suggest changes to it. It was approved by the House on Thursday. (Berman recently introduced another resolution opposing the defunding of police departments; that resolution was approved by the House on Wednesday.) 


Pohutsky, who questioned Berman on Tuesday during a state House health policy hearing, told Michigan Radio she hopes her Democratic and Republican colleagues “can come together on some sort of legislation” around how to better care for facility residents.


“I just think there has to actually be an end goal rather than just saying that the policy is bad and it’s the governor’s fault,” she said. “That’s not going to solve the problem.” 


Lucido’s bill, while it does propose a solution, is short on specifics. During the Thursday committee hearing, state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) asked Lucido about how to staff the new facilities, but got no answer. State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) emphasized the magnitude of Lucido's proposal ("Construction takes a long time," she said), but called it, "a good start of a conversation." And state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) urged committee members to study the risks of moving patients from home to home before voting on the bill. 


On a call with reporters on Monday, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said that while he and his department are open to alternative ideas for the safekeeping of nursing home residents with COVID-19, his greatest concern is just that: the physical and psychological harm that might befall elders who are shipped to unfamiliar places. 


“They lose their caregivers, their roommate, everything that’s familiar to them in their facility. And all the sudden they’re in a different home,” said Alison Hirschel, managing attorney for the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative. 


“So while we’re always concerned about containing the spread of the virus, we’re also concerned about the harm that happens to people when they’re forced to go someplace else.”


That’s the dilemma lawmakers will have to grapple with as they decide what’s best for the people in Michigan’s nursing homes.

Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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