(The Center Square) – On Tuesday, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) after the department refused to release data related to COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.
The Center Square reported the planned lawsuit last week.
Lawmakers and reporters are asking for nursing home data Michigan won’t hand over.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer enacted a policy of placing COVID-19 patients into nursing homes, a process similar to one enacted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo allegedly undercounted COVID-19 nursing home deaths.
The Mackinac Center is representing Charlie LeDuff, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, who was denied state records after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request in January.
In December, the state’s COVID-19 dashboard added an asterisk to its data that said they found new death numbers after a vital records search. LeDuff filed a FOIA request on Jan. 27, 2021, asking for a listing of all Michigan COVID-19 deaths during December 2020 that were identified in the vital records search.
The department provided a link to the state’s website, which contained publicly released data instead of the information requested. The MDHHS refused to release any additional information, claiming that it would be a privacy violation.
LeDuff clarified his request only asked for the age and date of death, when those deaths were added to official statistics, and if the deceased contracted COVID-19 at a long-term care facility. The state denied giving that information.
Despite LeDuff's request for aggregated and anonymized data, the department claimed that releasing it would reveal protected and private health information.
“It is essential that the public have access to data about nursing home deaths in Michigan,” Steve Delie, the Mackinac Center’s policy lead on transparency and open government, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, rather than simply providing anonymous data, the state has refused to shed light on this important matter. As more scandals plague other states’ COVID response, it is no longer acceptable for the government to provide statistics and ask citizens to simply accept them as true.”
MDHHS sells copies of individual death certificates that contain more personal information than LeDuff is requesting, the plaintiffs argue.
The plaintiffs claim none of the requested information can be used to identify individuals and that the state can redact any sensitive information and release the rest.
“Not only does the public have the right to know this information, we have the need to know,” LeDuff said in a statement. “It has become patently clear that this disease has attacked the most vulnerable, namely the institutionalized elderly. If we’re going to fix end-of-life care moving forward, it’s going to require a hard look at how the state’s policies treated our most vulnerable population.”