PA House Majority Leader refers probe of Wolf admin over COVID-19 nursing home deaths
The majority leader in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R), announced Monday that he has formally referred an investigation of Gov. Tom Wolf‘s (D) administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic to the House Government Oversight Committee, in light of speculation surrounding COVID-related deaths at those facilities. Calls for an investigation have especially been mounting during the past month.
This move comes as the governor in neighboring New York, Andrew Cuomo (D), is facing growing scrutiny over reports and accusations that his administration covered up nursing home COVID-19 death data to downplay the role a March 25, 2020 directive forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients had in the thousands of COVID-related deaths from those homes. Significantly, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) came out with a report in January saying that COVID-related nursing home deaths “may have been undercounted by as much as 50%”.
Cuomo is currently being investigated by federal authorities for his handling of nursing homes and the alleged cover-up of the death data.
In a statement from Benninghoff posted Monday to the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus’s Facebook page, the commonwealth’s house majority leader began by saying, “While we are hopeful that an end to this pandemic may be in sight, we cannot stop asking questions about the government’s role in containing the spread of the virus.”
“More than 12,700 Pennsylvanians died in nursing homes—over half of Pennsylvania’s virus-related deaths—and, to date, families across the Commonwealth have not received answers as to why and whether or not government orders contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities,” he continued, with the attached referral letter citing the state Department of Health’s (DOH) Long-Term Care Facilities data webpage reporting more than 12,700 COVID-19 deaths associated with nursing homes and personal care homes in Pennsylvania as of Thursday.
“Even a year after the pandemic began, data reported about deaths in Pennsylvania’s nursing homes remains incomplete and, in some cases, contradictory,” Benninghoff added.
“This non-partisan investigation should focus on getting answers and producing results,” he concluded. “Political maneuvering or obstruction should not interfere with finally answering the questions of so many Pennsylvania families whose vulnerable loved ones have been especially devastated by this virus.”
As the nursing home situation has grown more dire for Cuomo and has garnered more national media attention, alongside the sexual harassment allegations levied against him, Wolf has come under increased questioning from state GOP lawmakers wondering if Wolf followed his New York counterpart’s lead when it came to counting death data from nursing homes.
Wolf’s office has rebuked this speculation. “Pennsylvania did not discuss or coordinate reporting data or process with any other state including New York,” Lyndsey Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said per The York Daily Record.
Like Cuomo, Wolf also issued a directive in the spring of last year ordering nursing homes to not turn away COVID-positive patients.
The March 18, 2020 Pennsylvania DOH directive stated: “Nursing care facilities must continue to accept new admissions and receive admissions for current residents who have been discharged from the hospital who are stable to alleviate the increasing burden in the acute care settings. This may include stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus.”
As The York Daily Record noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did say nursing homes could accept COVID-19 patients returning from hospitals, and Wolf and some other governors utilized that option to free up hospital beds. An accusation toward Wolf from Republicans, according to the newspaper, is that he made that CDC’s optional guidance mandatory.
According to the PHRC’s Facebook post, Wolf on February 23, 2021 said he would welcome a review of his administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. “I want to be as transparent and open [as possible],” the governor reportedly said. “If there is something we can learn from anybody taking a look at what we’re doing, including the press, we’d welcome that.”
Also cited in the post is that House Democrats on March 1, 2021 saying they will be participating in the investigation. “House Democrats will work with the bipartisan oversight committee to review what happened in 2020,” they reportedly say. “It’s important not only to identify any missteps but also to highlight the many things that were done right. This fact-finding process will be guided by the truth and not by any false claims.”
You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.