Daines calls for investigation into COVID outbreak at Whitefish Care

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | October 9, 2020 1:00 AM

In a letter sent to the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Thursday, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called for a more thorough investigation into a recent COVID-19 outbreak at Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center that killed 13 residents and infected dozens more.

The letter, dated Oct. 8, is addressed to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, who manages the nation’s health coverage programs and oversees the agency’s $1 trillion federal budget. In his letter, Daines requested Verma’s “immediate attention” to the facility’s track record of deficiencies, the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent resident deaths.

According to Miles Novak, a spokesperson for Daines, the senator was contacted by families who lost loved ones at the facility. Although Daines has not personally made contact with Whitefish Care to discuss some of the grievances in his letter, Novak said he “believes an outside investigation into the facility is warranted and critical at this time and he does not want any contact with the facility to hinder the outside investigation.”

In his letter, Daines wrote “as someone who wants to ensure that our most vulnerable are protected, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, I urge you to further investigate the circumstances surrounding these deaths and re-evaluate this facility’s suitability to continue providing care as well as whether the state survey agency properly enforced the regulations in place to protect residents.”

The letter mentions that the Department of Veterans Affairs, which relies on CMS-certified facilities such as Whitefish Care, was “funding care for several residents at this facility at the time of their deaths.”

In addition, Daines referred to findings in past deficiency reports, including ones from late 2019 and early 2020 that found residents went long periods of time without showers or baths.

Daines then went on to highlight a more recent survey that was performed by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services on behalf of CMS. The survey was completed on Sept. 1, about two weeks after Whitefish Care officials announced the first wave of COVID-19-positive residents.

Surveyors concluded Whitefish Care failed to protect its residents from the virus by rooming positive patients with negative patients, not using personal protective equipment properly and more.

“In light of these disturbing developments, I request your immediate attention into this matter and a report of your findings, including recommendations to ensure the health and safety of residents moving forward,” Daines wrote.

Though the letter focuses mostly on investigating the past outbreak, Whitefish Care Executive Director Reid Crickmore said the facility has improved greatly since the findings in the September survey. He said issues cited in the report have been addressed, including ones surrounding staffing shortages.

“I can tell you that we have worked closely with CMS throughout their extensive investigation process. We value and welcome accountability and have made our staff, records, and information available to the investigators, and taken an open and collaborative approach to the process,” Crickmore wrote in an email.

He also said the facility received a notification from CMS personnel on Thursday in which the agency stated Whitefish Care has “achieved and maintained substantial compliance.” This also prompted CMS to rescind the facility’s “provider agreement termination,” which was put in place after the September survey.


Crickmore said a temporary manager is still in place at Whitefish Care. The individual was brought in from a third-party company to ensure the deficiencies cited in the September survey were addressed.

HOW LONG-TERM care facilities protect their residents and staff from COVID-19 has been a topic of concern for many since the start of the pandemic. While Daines is the first to refer to recent occurrences at Whitefish Care, transparency in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities centers and how to combat COVID-19 outbreaks have proven to be bipartisan issues.

In early March, Gov. Steve Bullock directed nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to close their doors to non-essential visitation. Since then, he has also pushed for widespread and consistent testing among residents and staff, among other efforts.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has also been a staunch advocate for Montana’s older adult population. When Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings was suffering a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in August, Tester urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ensure that any future COVID-19 legislation includes “funding to sustain the Medicaid program, targeted solutions to save lives in nursing homes and a dedicated investment in home and community-based services.”

Also in August, Daines sent a letter to Bullock regarding the state’s lack of reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities, describing the issue as an “information gap” in helping professionals battle the virus.

The number of cases and deaths in long-term care facilities can now be found online via the state health department’s website. As of Wednesday, 58 individuals associated with long-term care and/or assisted-living facilities in the state had died from COVID-19-related issues.