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Coronavirus

Levine pressed for answers on Pa.’s missing nursing home data as confirmation advances

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Dr. Rachel Levine, who oversaw the state health department during the first year of the pandemic, was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as assistant health secretary.
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine is under pressure from U.S. House Republicans to provide more details about the state’s missing nursing home data ahead of her confirmation to a post in the Biden administration.

At the same time, House and Senate Republicans are also calling on the state Department of Health to provide more details about its overall approach to nursing homes, citing Spotlight PA reporting on how historically weak oversight and failed plans hampered the response.

Levine, who oversaw the state health department during the first year of the pandemic, was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as assistant health secretary.

In a letter to Levine addressed Tuesday, four Republican House Ways and Means Committee members, including Rep. Mike Kelly of Butler and Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster, asked Levine to address several questions about why data for COVID-19 cases and deaths was — and continues to be — missing from public reports released weekly by the state health department.

The letter cites Spotlight PA reporting from September 2020 showing that the reports were consistently missing data for more than 100 of the state’s 693 nursing homes, at times obscuring deadly outbreaks and making it difficult for families and resident advocates to monitor COVID-19 hotspots.

Levine was first asked about the missing data by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) during a February confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, or HELP.

Collins said Levine had assured her that Pennsylvania had not, like New York, undercounted nursing home deaths. But, also citing the Spotlight PA report, Collins questioned why so much data still appeared to be missing.

Levine pointed to lags in the state’s electronic death reporting system, or EDRS, to explain why case and death data appeared to be incomplete.

In their letter Tuesday, House Republicans asked Levine to clarify why her response contradicted Spotlight PA’s findings, which pointed to problems with different reporting systems and procedures.

As of March 10, the most recent report available on the state health department website, case and death data was missing for 138 facilities. The previous week, data was missing for 133 facilities, according to a March 4 report.

The Senate HELP committee — including Collins — voted Wednesday to advance Levine’s confirmation to a vote before the full Senate.

In a separate letter Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pennsylvania) and members of the state’s House delegation called on Pennsylvania Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam to provide more details about how the department will improve protections for nursing home residents in the future.

That letter cites Spotlight PA reports from early in the pandemic about why the state did not act faster to implement strike teams to tackle nursing home outbreaks, and how the pandemic exacerbated long-standing problems with state oversight of facilities.

It asks Beam, who was selected by Gov. Tom Wolf to replace Levine in late January, to answer questions about how the state inspected nursing homes throughout the pandemic and how the department helped facilities manage infection control problems.

The letter also asks Beam to explain how the department will improve facility inspection procedures, how it will support ongoing vaccination efforts in nursing homes, and how it will ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment moving forward.

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