An influential Republican lawmaker demanded Thursday that the Minnesota Department of Health release more information on the spread of the novel coronavirus in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, threatening to issue a subpoena if the agency did not comply with data requests.
Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, chairwoman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, said the state health agency has denied or ignored multiple requests for information that is vital to those who live in senior care facilities and their families. This includes information on the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at long-term care facilities across the state, as well as information on discharges of hospital patients with the virus to long-term care facilities.
“While I appreciate the work of Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and her staff during this challenging period, I have seen little indication that the administration views the crisis in long-term care as a priority,” Housley said in a statement. “I have repeatedly asked, both privately and publicly, for specific data and information, but those requests have been met with more vague responses and promises of future e-mails than useful information.”
A Health Department spokesman said Thursday that the agency was working to pull together the information requested by Housley within the timeline she requested.
The subpoena threat comes amid growing frustration among lawmakers, health care watchdogs and senior care advocates over the state’s withholding of facility-level data on coronavirus outbreaks. Without site-specific data, many families said they have had difficulty making informed judgments about their loved ones’ care.
The bare-minimum approach to disclosure by some providers has forced many families to endure wrenching waits for information. In some cases, residents and their families said they were not told of large-scale outbreaks until weeks after they occurred.
Michael Johnson, 71, of Maple Grove, said he has been staying at North Ridge Health and Rehab since March, recovering from a severe car accident. But he did not know there was a large outbreak of COVID-19 in the facility until it was reported in the media in late May. “Had I known, I would have begged and pleaded to get somewhere else,” he said.
At some nursing homes ravaged by the virus, families said they would have moved their elderly relatives out of the facilities had they known so many people were dying of the illness.
“We are getting bits and pieces of information, but not a clear picture of how deeply the virus has penetrated these facilities,” said Mary Jo George, associate state director of advocacy at AARP Minnesota.
Since March, the deadly respiratory virus has swept through nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across the state, cutting a deadly path. More than 3,000 residents of long-term care communities have contracted the virus and 896 have died, state health officials report. Together, these facilities account for 80% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
In March, the Health Department initially refused to identify any of the facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19, citing concerns that releasing the names would violate state privacy laws by potentially exposing the identities of those infected with the virus. Amid public pressure, however, the agency began posting the facility names with COVID-19 cases on its public website. Still, disclosure was minimal: The agency has not identified the number of cases or deaths in each facility.
As a result, residents and their families had to rely on individual providers to release such information, and disclosure has been inconsistent. Some facilities post weekly updates on COVID-19 cases and deaths on their websites or in letters to families, while others provide no information. Last month, for instance, St. Therese of New Hope told families that 57 of its residents had died of COVID-19, and nearly 150 had contracted the virus. Another large nursing home, North Ridge Health and Rehab, has disclosed more than 40 deaths.
Even when disclosure is mandated, providers have been reluctant to disclose COVID-19 data. In early May, a new federal rule took effect requiring nursing homes to report deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Monday, however, only two-thirds of Minnesota’s nursing homes had reported this information as required, and those that have not may be subject to enforcement actions.
“The lack of disclosure is scandalous,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
In a letter to Malcolm, Housley sought answers to a dozen questions related to the scope of coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities. These include numbers of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 per facility; a breakdown of cases and deaths by facility type, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities; and numbers of COVID-19 patients who have been discharged from hospitals to long-term care facilities, and the locations of these facilities. She also requested a timeline from the agency for COVID-19 testing of all long-term care residents and staff.
Housley warned that her committee was prepared to issue a legislative subpoena early next week if the Health Department did not provide a “satisfactory response” to her questions by Friday night. Legislative subpoenas are rare and must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the committee.