House GOP wants probe into Wolf administration's actions on nursing homes during pandemic
From left to right, Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter), House Majority Leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin), and{ }Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny/Washington) prepare for a press conference discussing that they will be referring an investigation of the Wolf administration’s handling of nursing homes and other senior and long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic to the House Government Oversight Committee. (Still frame from video feed provided by Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus)

Pennsylvania House Republicans have announced they will seek an investigation into the Wolf administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities when the full House returns later this month.

Those lawmakers, led by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said Monday they hope to get answers to their lingering questions as to why so many died and why the Pennsylvania Department of Health went down the path they did.

"Pennsylvanians and their families are left with only excuses or deflections from an administration that has been anything but transparent on this issue," Benninghoff said. 

The issue about the state’s guidelines to allow discharged hospital patients back into long-term care facilities has been raised almost from the beginning of the pandemic. But following a recent investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., by his state's attorney general, and what house republicans say are new concerns raised in hearings in Harrisburg last week, they’re now taking this step.

It comes as a group of Republicans in the Pennsylvania Congregational delegation called for an investigation into the issue, in a statement Monday they said they thanked the members of the General Assembly for their actions.

Gov. Tom Wolf, D-Pa., told 6 News last week he welcomed any inquiry into the situation. The Republican group said they're calling his bluff on that message. 

One issue the GOP group said needs looked into is the state’s reporting policies. While Pennsylvania has accounted for all nursing home deaths regardless of where they died, a failure that is at the heart of the Cuomo probe, data from Pennsylvania nursing homes themselves have been slow or in some cases non-existent. 

The GOP group highlighted that the health department admits about 15% of nursing homes are not complying with self-reporting data.

"This is the department that will send deputized agents from the Department of Agriculture to fine and shut down bars and restaurants who do not comply with their orders, but it will let facilities tasked with protecting our seniors slide," said Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter.

Lyndsay Kensinger, Press Secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf, said in a statement to 6 News:

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.

The Department of Health issued several pieces of guidance in March of 2020 that provides direction on infection control, cohorting, admittance, and other actions. This guidance mirrored the federal government's recommendations, and importantly, it required facilities to follow specific infection control measures in order to protect patients against COVID-19. It is critically important to look at the entirety of the guidance provided to nursing homes. While the Department of Health provides guidance, licensing, and enforcement actions, it does not own or operate nursing homes. The Department of Health licenses nursing home facilities and works tirelessly to provide resources and supports for nursing homes to minimize exposure, prevent outbreak and ultimately help improve safety for residents and staff. It is incumbent upon the nursing homes to follow infection control and other guidance designed to keep patients safe during both regular periods and the COVID-19 pandemic. Failure to institute protections can result in sanctions, license suspensions or revocations. For the most egregious violations the department has gone so far as to provide temporary managers or sent regional teams to help facilities establish proper protocols to keep residents and staff safe.

The Department of Health acted swiftly throughout COVID-19 response to best protect Pennsylvanians and battle the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care facilities. In regards to admittance, according to the Associated Press article on Feb. 26, 2021, “Despite a high number of nursing home deaths in Pennsylvania, no investigation has thus far pointed to the policy as a cause of death or outbreak. Meanwhile, nursing home trade associations in Pennsylvania say they are not aware of a nursing home that was forced to accept a COVID-positive patient against its will, or that the order led to death or an outbreak.”

The department will continue its commitment to supporting and providing resources to nursing homes throughout Pennsylvania. To date, every skilled nursing facility in the state – more than 600 – have had first and second clinics to provide vaccinations to residents and staff who want to be vaccinated, resulting in hundreds of thousands of vaccinated Pennsylvanians.

Bill Patton, House Democratic Caucus press secretary, said in a statement to 6 News: 

House Democrats will work with the bipartisan oversight committee to review what happened in 2020. 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.

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