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

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
State Sen. Karin Housley

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.)

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?”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/05/2020 - 09:39 am.

    Anytime a politician claims “you can get the information without a subpoena “, you won’t get it. If the MDH wanted Housley to have the information, she would already have it. With Minnesota having an 80+% of deaths coming from long term care facilities, there is negligence somewhere. How could leaders of our State not see the problem with LTC patients months ago? Someone needs to held accountable for our most vulnerable citizens dying at over a 30% rate than national average.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/05/2020 - 08:01 pm.

      Why did the leaders of the state see this problem months ago. Three months ago was early March, before the problem was manifesting itself. One obvious problem / the data are out of date the day they are issued. This is a dynamic problem that requires tracking.

      Rather than ask for data, and draw your own uninformed conclusions, ask the experts to prepare a report and appear to testify. Provide specific questions up front. If the experts don’t have answers for all of them, call them back.

      About half of facilities have a death, more have cases. Focus your examination on facilities with lots of problems. Not doing so amounts what data analysts call boiling the ocean which yields no insights. Why do some facilities have many more problems than others? That is what we need to know.

      Also Republicans don’t like the idea of discharging patients into long term care? Ask them , if not there where else – if you point us just to find fault without finding solutions, you are just an obstacle.

  2. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 06/05/2020 - 10:54 am.

    Absolutely no fan of this women, but agree this info should be available. Sadly, I believe she will use the info to undermine the isolation efforts to protect us all

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2020 - 11:27 am.

    It’s just soooooo typical that in the middle of all the crisis we’re dealing with…. THIS is what Republicans are focused on? Don’t you people have any idea how swamped and overwhelmed MDH is at the moment? This is not data that is normally compiled in real time, and the reason it’s not normally compiled in real time is that Republicans have spent decades defunding the Offices that monitor care facilities in order to shrink big government, and cater to their industry constituents who have always pushed back against regulations and compilations of this kind of data. And NOW they’re demanding this data?

    And I hate to tell you guys but this data will be almost useless, which is why no one at MDH is dropping whatever their doing to run around and compile it. Even when if and when you see this data, it will only be a snapshot at a given time that doesn’t tell you anything. Anyone who thinks this is some kind of exercise in consumer protection doesn’t understand how our health care system and long term care facilities work.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/05/2020 - 11:51 am.

      I disagree. This may be showboating (from Senator Housley? Unthinkable!), but it still is a part of legitimate oversight.

      I trust Senator Housley will understand that the data may not be readily available to her in a usable form.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/05/2020 - 12:55 pm.

        Are you saying that LTC facilities don’t have available to them how many cases and deaths have occurred in their facility? You have one staffer at MDH call all the facilities, get their numbers, write it down and press send…. Not that hard!

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/05/2020 - 02:41 pm.

          Are you saying that LTC facilities are all reporting as required, or will turn over information immediately upon request? Are you saying that it is just a matter of a few quick steps to provide Senator Married to a Hockey Player with the data she says she wants in a form she will be able to use?

          Maybe they can deliver the data to her by flying pig.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2020 - 02:50 pm.

          No Joe, it’s not that easy. You want COVID data in real time so it’s not just a matter of tracking deaths, people die in LTFs every day. What do you want to know, who many died today? Last Thursday? This Month? Since the pandemic started, and what day was that by the way? You want this data daily, weekly, monthly? Are we talking about people who actually died IN the facilities, and/or those who died after being transferred to ICU’s? There are hundred of these facilities in the state and you think one person can call them all? And even if they do, your data is obsolete the moment you’ve collected if you more than a one day, or week snapshot. Furthermore, this data doesn’t tell you anything because a LTF that has zero cases today, may have 10 or 15 in five days. If you want ongoing surveillance it’s not simply a matter of collecting data, you need to set up an entire program to collect data, a program that doesn’t exist because the legislature has passed a law require it’s existence and funding it’s operation.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2020 - 10:19 am.

        RB, this has little if anything to do with legitimate oversight. If Housely understood anything about this, she would introducing a bill that creates funds an effective oversight regime rather than demanding to see this “data”. All Republicans are doing here is trying to beat-up MDH.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/05/2020 - 01:00 pm.

      Completely agree with this. Spot on. Republicans looking for an angle to cover for their own failures.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/05/2020 - 04:49 pm.

        The only failure is the lack of basic reporting from LTC facilities to legit overseers in the Senate and the FACT that Minnesota has 82% of its COViD 19 deaths coming from long term care facilities. Minnesota did NOTHING 3-4 months ago when it was apparent, to anyone who could add, that deaths were come from LTC. Why? Governor DeSantis from Florida took decisive action and a State with the most seniors didn’t come close to the 82% death rate. Again, why?

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/05/2020 - 11:25 pm.

          The only action DeSantis took was ordering county coroner’s to suppress public release of death records to cover his own posterior.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/08/2020 - 03:44 pm.

          I’m not sure how you would know what’s going on in Florida because their governor has been supressing information and firing people who try to tell the truth.

      • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/05/2020 - 11:20 pm.

        I agree. The timing of this sudden interest in long term facility data is suspect. Long term facilities for seniors (aka “nursing homes”) are staffed largely by underpaid (and in my experience dedicated) staff who also have families and personal needs. It wasn’t immediately apparent three months ago that carriers of COVID-19 might be asymptomatic. Those numbers are still unknown. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that nursing home staff might be carrying in COVID-19 at a higher rate than other places. Otherwise, where are the nursing homes going to be staffed? The GOP is once again looking for a “fall guy” or someone to blame rather than a solution to a serious problem.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/05/2020 - 12:58 pm.

    I would take this more seriously if it wasn’t Housley on this.

  5. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 06/05/2020 - 02:09 pm.

    There will be an uproar from Sen. Housley if the response to a subpoena is the same as the US House receives from the White House.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2020 - 10:05 am.

    I think one of the issues here, besides politics, is the ongoing Republican myopia regarding he nature of health care. Republicans still cling to the absurd notion that health care can be a consumer driven marketplace. I think the core of Housely’s mentality behind these demands is the idea that she’s we can have informed consumers who make informed health care choices. The idea here is that we need to provide this information so consumer can make informed choices. This data makes no sense in any other context.

    Of course the problem is that this data request is just as incoherent as the consumer model itself. The Republican fantasy has always produced the absurd expectation that you will get gold standard care for bargain basement prices if you just keep cutting taxes, staff, and resources. So there they are, demanding gold standard performance from a gutted and de-financed department. Housely is demanding that MDH pull people off the line to compile data that satisfies her curiosity in the middle of crises.

  7. Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/11/2020 - 07:57 am.

    My take on this is that MN Senate Repubs should be told they will receive the same degree of oversight in MN as their president is willing to provide to the Dem House in DC—in other words, none.

    Indeed, the “conservative” line is that legislative subpoenas are now unenforceable, and that is what Justice Roberts’ illegitimate 5 man “conservative” majority is set to rule.

    One must fight fire with fire. These are the wages of destroying our traditions of governance, American “conservatives”.

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