The Justice Department on Wednesday said it’s weighing whether to investigate if four Democratic-led states violated nursing home residents’ civil rights by admitting Covid-19 patients to the facilities — a policy critics say resulted in thousands of deaths.
Federal officials are seeking coronavirus data from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which each issued contentious orders to admit patients who had tested positive, as long as they were medically stable, while hospitalizations spiked early in the pandemic.
The DOJ request appears focused on state-run nursing homes. An industry source said it excludes privately run nursing homes, even if they are licensed by the state and accept payments under Medicaid.
Key context: Blue states were among the hardest hit early in the pandemic. Some with packed hospitals sent less ill patients elsewhere to relieve capacity.
Officials said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division “seeks to determine if the state orders requiring admission of COVID-19 patients to nursing homes is responsible for the deaths of nursing home residents.”
What they said: Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said DOJ must ensure nursing home residents “are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”
A spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dismissed the request as “nothing more than election year politics by an administration that is more concerned with the president’s reelection campaign than protecting Michigan seniors.”
A spokesperson for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state logged the highest number of coronavirus deaths, didn’t immediately comment. Most of the nursing homes in New York are privately run.
Background: Cuomo, who has come under fire for his administration’s handling of Covid-19 in nursing homes, previously defended the policy, saying it followed federal guidelines and protected long-term care facility residents from discrimination. In May, he modified the policy to prevent hospitals from transferring Covid-19-positive patients to nursing homes or adult care facilities.
A state report released last month, meanwhile, concluded that thousands of coronavirus-related deaths in such facilities were largely driven by community spread from infected staff or visitors in the early days of the state’s Covid-19 outbreak — not the March 25 transfer policy.
Some New York state lawmakers — including several Republicans — have questioned the findings and called for an independent probe of New York’s Covid-19-related nursing home deaths.
National implications: Republicans in Congress have also pressed the issue. The GOP members on the House committee overseeing the federal response to the coronavirus in June sent letters to five Democratic governors asking for detailed information on policies mandating nursing homes take in Covid-19 patients.
Meanwhile, the panel’s chair, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) launched a sweeping investigation into the country’s five largest for-profit nursing home companies, and has also sought reams of information from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about whether the agency properly managed outbreaks in facilities.
Over a quarter of the nation’s nearly 180,000 deaths have occurred in nursing homes. Nursing homes have become a hotbed of infection for several reasons: elderly people are particularly susceptible to the virus, staff — and early on visitors — brought the virus into the facility, and coronavirus spreads easier in communal settings.
Rachel Roubein and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.