Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of COVID-related nursing home deaths in the nation, and now the state House Oversight Committee will conduct a formal investigation into the Wolf administration’s handling of the crisis.
On Monday, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Center/Mifflin) formally referred an investigation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s office over the matter to the House Oversight Committee. It’s the latest step in the ongoing story of Pennsylvania’s high number of nursing home deaths, problematic decisions by members of the Wolf administration and questions of coordination between Wolf and embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo, whose handling of the COVID pandemic was once called the “gold standard” by President Joe Biden, has since acknowledged his administration altered public records to cover up the state’s high number of coronavirus nursing home fatalities. According to a Cuomo staffer, it was an attempt to avoid an investigation into the governor’s policy of returning COVID-positive residents to these vulnerable facilities, a policy one nursing home advocated called “tantamount to genocide.”
Wolf followed that same policy, and Pennsylvania has suffered the fourth-highest COVID-19 nursing home death rate in the country.
“Remember this is the same administration that Governor Wolf and Secretary Levine were working in collaboration with when these very decisions were being made, that also should make us all step back and start asking more questions,” state Representative Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter) said at a press conference earlier this month.
Many questions remain regarding both the Wolf administration’s handling of the nursing home issues, as well as what role his partnership with Cuomo played in influencing policy.
“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,” Benninghoff said. “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.
“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.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began, Wolf announced he would be partnering with other northeast states, almost all with Democratic governors, to coordinate their response. Citing an “integrated economy,” Wolf joined the Regional Coalition of Northeast Governors, which includes Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
In April 2020, the governors participated in a conference call led by Cuomo who declared, “This is about being smart. Not political, but smart.” Since then, three of the governors have come under fire for alleged mismanagement of the coronavirus threat to nursing home populations. Wolf, Cuomo, and Murphy all face questions as to both the reporting of nursing home deaths and the directives their states were sending to nursing homes and long-term care facilities (LTCFs).
Pennsylvania House leaders pointed to this close relationship when they announced their investigation.
“One of the most frustrating aspects of this administration’s unilateral handling of COVID-19 is while they were more than willing to take marching orders from Gov. Cuomo, they refused to talk between departments or the state legislature,” said Jason Gottesman, press secretary to the House Majority Leader. “As an example, our recently-concluded House Appropriations budget hearings showed that the Department of Health and the Department of Aging were not working in coordination to protect seniors in nursing homes.
“Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Attorney General and other investigative bodies have refused to look into this issue. That is why House Majority Leader Benninghoff is referring it to the House Government Oversight Committee. Since nobody else will step up for Pennsylvanians, we will continue to be the voice for our most vulnerable.”
The Republican Governors Association has also taken an interest in the issue, making a Right To Know request for communications between Wolf and former Secretary of Health Rachel Levine between March 10 and May 15, 2020. That period covers two directives sent by the Pennsylvania Department of Health regarding nursing homes and LTCFs.
On March 18, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine directed licensed long-term care facilities to continue admitting new patients, including those discharged from hospitals but unable to go home, and to readmit current patients after hospital stays. “This may include stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus,” according to a copy of the guidelines.
On May 11, the department of state put out a new set of guidelines, mostly focused on testing. This directive did not prevent nursing homes from accepting COVID-positive residents.
Earlier this year, the DVJournal requested similar records from the department of health and the Governor’s Office. Both requests were met with pushback from the administration. Unlike most committees, the relatively new House Government Oversight Committee has subpoena power. The committee is chaired by state Representative Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne) and is comprised of five Republicans and four Democrats.
The Right-to-Know request from the RGA may be a preview of the 2022 mid-term elections, which include an open governor’s seat.