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Lawmaker threatens to subpoena Department of Health over data about COVID-19 in long-term care facilities

In a letter to the agency, state Sen. Karin Housley said the Senate’s Family Care and Aging Committee, which Housley chairs, has tried to learn more from the Minnesota Department of Health about the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s long-term care facilities, to little avail.

State Sen. Karin Housley
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, threatened on Thursday to subpoena the Minnesota Department of Health for information on the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities.

In a letter to the agency, she said lawmakers on the Senate’s Family Care and Aging Committee, which Housley chairs, have tried to question MDH and learn more about the spread of COVID-19 and the agency’s response as the disease has killed nearly 900 people at long-term care facilities in less than three months.

“Disappointingly, our requests were met with more vague responses and promises of emailed data (which we still have not received) than useful information,” Housley wrote.

Two of Housley’s top demands are for the number of known COVID-19 cases and deaths that have occurred at each long-term care facility, which the agency has refused to disclose, saying doing so could run afoul of privacy laws. (Housley and public records activists maintain releasing the information would be legal.)

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Doug Schultz, an MDH spokesman, said the agency is “working to pull together the information” Housley asked for by the 5 p.m. Friday deadline she set. Housley said her committee is prepared to issue a subpoena for the information at a meeting next week if she doesn’t get satisfactory answers. 

She has been seeking much of the information since early April, Housley said in an interview. Housley said she escalated her request after a hearing Tuesday, where she said MDH officials were dodging answers.

Under state law, legislative committees can issue subpoenas with a two-thirds vote of members to require production of records. Republicans control Housley’s committee by a 6 to 4 margin, and the GOP believes they would need seven votes to issue a subpoena.

Twin Valley Sen. Kent Eken, the top Democrat on the committee, said Thursday he believes lawmakers could get the information from MDH without the subpoena, saying he wished they would seek a less confrontational approach with a busy agency that has been making a “good faith effort” to answer questions. Still, Eken said he wanted the same data on long-term care facilities, and would support a subpoena if a vote were held.

“We’re in uncharted waters here, and the more information we have the better we are at navigating this crisis,” Eken said.

Housley had 17 total requests. One was for a breakdown of COVID-19 cases and deaths at each type of long-term care setting, which includes skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Another was for how many patients infected with COVID-19 have been discharged from hospitals to long-term care settings, and for the location of those facilities. Republicans have questioned the practice in recent weeks, saying they’re concerned it could lead to more infections among the vulnerable.

On Thursday, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a cache of data on COVID-19 in nursing homes. It includes a searchable database to find the number of known cases and deaths at each nursing home in the state.

Though CMS warns the data is preliminary and subject to fluctuations as facilities submit and correct data, Minnesota has 49.7 COVID-19 cases per 1,000 nursing home residents, which ranks as the 26th highest case rate in the country. It is still higher, however, than the case rate in neighboring Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

Minnesota has 12.1 resident deaths per 1,000 residents, which ranks at the 29th highest death rate in the country. That is higher than the death rate in Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. “All the states around us are still doing better,” Housley said.

Housley is still asking for case and death numbers at long-term care facilities in Minnesota, which encompasses more than just nursing homes. Currently, 855 facilities have or have had at least one COVID-19 case among staff or residents, while 377 have or have had three or more cases.

“They have to have the data,” Housley said of MDH. “Why can’t we see it?”