The Mississippi Health Care Association, a political action committee that represents many members of the state’s nursing-home industry, has given $217,500 to Gov. Tate Reeves since 2011, and its lobbying arm spent more than $800,000 on activities at the Mississippi Legislature during his time as lieutenant governor, a Mississippi Free Press investigation recovered.
The association’s reported lobbying activities include dozens of visits with Reeves, a Republican, over the years, and several with Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer who oversees the Mississippi State Department of Health. MHCA also recorded three meetings with Mississippi’s former Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood. The records indicate dozens of meetings each year with a bipartisan cast of representatives and senators at the Legislature.
Long-term-care facilities have become a flashpoint during the COVID-19 pandemic, with battles simmering over a lack of transparency in many states. They account for a significant fraction of COVID-19 deaths nationwide and about half in Mississippi.
On Monday, Politico’s Maggie Severns and Rachel Roubein reported that “the nursing home industry is one of the lobbying world’s quiet powerhouses” and spends millions lobbying officials in statehouses and in Congress each year. Federally, the industry “employs more than a dozen full-time lobbyists and (draws) on an army of contractors,” including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a long-time Washington lobbyist and former head of the Republican National Committee who was known for his ties to the nursing home industry in the 2000s. Nationally, the nursing home lobby is seeking protections against lawsuits, which they want included in new federal coronavirus relief legislation.
Since March, the State of Mississippi has refused to release the names of nursing homes with active COVID-19 cases, drawing scrutiny and even a lawsuit from news organizations across the state, including The Clarion-Ledger, which sent multiple lawful public-records requests asking the Mississippi State Department of Health to identify facilities with COVID-19 cases before filing a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Earlier this month, Dobbs said the Department of Health is shielding the names of long-term-care facilities over “privacy concerns,” even though releasing the names of affected nursing homes would not reveal any patient names.
‘MSDH Failed In Its Legislative Duty to Provide Public Access’
In an April editorial calling for more transparency, though, Greenwood Commonwealth editor and publisher Tim Kalich implied that nursing homes want their names shielded for business reasons.
“The nursing homes don’t like being named because they fear the bad publicity and because of the possibility that panicky families will check the residents out without a proper way to care for them at home,” Kalich wrote on April 22.
The PineBelt News, a Hattiesburg paper, scored a partial victory late Tuesday, May 26, when a Hinds County judge ruled that MSDH must release a list of nursing homes with novel coronavirus infections in Forrest County, which the State reports has infected residents at 121 facilities as of May 26. The paper filed a public-records request on April 5 seeking the names of the affected facilities, but the health department declined to provide the information, claiming it did not have the resources to fulfill the request.
“While the Court is sympathetic to the untenable position of MSDH in facing the current pandemic with limited resources and capabilities, the Legislature has mandated certain actions by all public bodies in an effort to maintain transparency and public access to public records,” Hinds County First Judicial District Chancellor Tiffany Grove wrote. “Unfortunately, MSDH failed in its legislative duty to provide public access.”
“This is a win for the people of the state of Mississippi,” Matthew Lawrence, the attorney for The PineBelt News, told that paper on Tuesday afternoon. “While there are many areas where the state supplants the law … (the ruling) establishes that the voice of the people—and reminds us all that the law—still matters.”
Half of Mississippi’s COVID-19 Deaths in Long-term Care Facilities
The Mississippi Free Press reported the first publicly confirmed case at a nursing home in late March, after The Grove in Columbia sent out a letter to family members of residents confirming its first COVID-19 case. Since then, 14 nursing-home residents in Marion County have tested positive for the virus, and two have died. This reporter’s grandmother is in that facility.
Statewide, though, few other long term-care facilities have been forthcoming about COVID-19 cases. A representative for Diversicare in Meridian told the Mississippi Free Press last month that they would not confirm or deny whether they had any cases to protect patient privacy, even though doing so would not require revealing any patients’ names.
Last week, MSDH began testing all residents at long term-care facilities with even just one COVID-19 infection.
“Our goal is to test almost 27,000 in long term-care facilities over a 14-day period, and we’re not halfway through that, but we’ve already started that process,” Gov. Reeves said during a press conference last week.
Before then, the department had advised long term-care facilities to only seek tests for residents or staff members who exhibited symptoms, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Many people with novel coronavirus infections, though, may take weeks to show symptoms or never exhibit any at all.
By Tuesday morning, MSDH had confirmed 652 COVID-19 deaths statewide, noting that half of the dead were residents of long term-care facilities. Though it does not currently list them by name, MSDH does note that there are outbreaks at 121 long term-care facilities in the state.