It has become increasingly clear the administration is not being transparent about this issue and is either unable or unwilling to answer some of the most basic questions concerned families have had during this pandemic. This is unacceptable. All Pennsylvanians – and particularly those who lost loved ones in our nursing homes and long-term care facilities – deserve better.
According to Rule 45(A) of the Pennsylvania House Rules, the Pennsylvania House majority leader can refer investigations to the House Government Oversight Committee. The House Government Oversight Committee is comprised of five Republicans and four Democrats and has subpoena power to compel documents and witnesses.
State House Republicans said Monday they will begin investigating Gov. Tom Wolf’s oversight of nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
State House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said the House Government Oversight Committee would examine the Wolf administration’s oversight of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
More than 12,000 coronavirus deaths have occurred in Pennsylvania’s long-term care facilities, which represents more than half the state’s fatalities during the pandemic.
Benninghoff, a Centre County Republican, faulted what he described as incomplete testimony about nursing home from Wolf administration officials at hearings.
“We believe Pennsylvanians deserve better from their government when they are seeking answers as to why something so tragic has occurred and they are not getting answers,” Benninghoff said in a statement. “Unfortunately, as of today, including our recent budget hearings where members directly asked the administration about this issue, Pennsylvanians and their families are left only with excuses and deflection from an administration that has been anything but transparent.”
Republican state lawmakers have criticized the Wolf’s administration’s oversight of nursing homes throughout the pandemic. Specifically, lawmakers have said the Wolf administration made a grievous error in directing nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19.
Nursing home industry officials have said they are not aware of any facilities that were forced to readmit those who infected with the virus against their will. Those officials also have said they aren’t aware of any fatalities or outbreaks tied to the state’s policy.
There have been no investigations citing the state’s policy as a cause of death or outbreak of coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities, the Associated Press reported last week.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the Wolf administration’s guidance mirrored the federal government’s recommendations regarding nursing homes. The Pennsylvania Health Department, which regulates nursing homes, issued directions requiring the facilities to follow measures to prevent the spread of the virus and protect residents and staff, Kensinger said.
“These baseless, ongoing insinuations by the GOP portray a significant lack of understanding of the role of the Department of Health and guidance provided to nursing facilities,” Kensinger said in an email.
When nursing homes have violated procedures, the health department has sent temporary managers and regional teams to facilities in order to protect residents and staff, Kensinger said.
State Rep. Natalie Mihalek, an Allegheny County Republican, criticized the Wolf administration for failing to be more forthcoming in its decisions regarding nursing homes.
“We’ve been looking for answers for our citizens for almost a year now,” Mihalek said in a statement Monday. “The Wolf administration claims transparency is their No. 1 priority, yet provide us with no clarity behind their decisions. Our citizens deserve better.”
At a hearing last week, Mihalek urged Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam to say that the department’s order was a mistake. Beam said the state wanted to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed with coronavirus cases and wanted to allow nursing home residents to recover in their homes “to the extent that it could be done safely.”
Eight Republican congressmen from Pennsylvania issued a joint statement Monday afternoon thanking state lawmakers for announcing plans to investigate the governor’s oversight of nursing homes.
“Pennsylvanians deserve a full and transparent investigation into what went wrong,” the congressmen said in the statement.
At a federal confirmation hearing last week, former Health Secretary Rachel Levine was asked about discrepancies in Pennsylvania’s data on nursing home coronavirus deaths and cases. Levine, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the U.S. assistant health secretary, directed the health department for most of the first year of the pandemic.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, cited Spotlight PA reporting from September 2020 that found the health department’s weekly reports were regularly missing death and case data for more than 100 nursing homes.
Levine pointed to lags in the state’s electronic death reporting system. But Spotlight PA found nursing homes were reporting data on cases and deaths to the department using other software portals, and not the electronic death reporting system Levine cited at the hearing.
The Wolf administration said last week that it had completed first and second vaccination clinics at more than 600 skilled nursing care facilities in Pennsylvania. Wolf said virtually all residents of skilled nursing homes in Pennsylvania have now received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, calling it a “milestone.”
Long-term care industry leaders have acknowledged the state has made progress in nursing homes. But industry leaders said the state still has work to do to to vaccinate residents and staff in assisted living and personal care facilities, along with seniors in independent living facilities.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.