Ernst privately apologizes to Iowa Medical Society for suggesting doctors are faking COVID-19 deaths

Sen. Joni Ernst on CSPAN, Jan. 27, 2020. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Sen. Joni Ernst privately apologized to members of the Iowa Medical Society (IMS) for her suggestion that doctors are faking COVID-19 deaths to make money, but declined to say if she’d issue a public statement withdrawing her suggestion, Iowa Starting Line reported.

Ernst made her remarks about doctors falsely attributing deaths to COVID-19 during an Aug. 31 campaign stop in Waterloo. During the event’s question-and-answer period, an Ernst supporter told her he believed the death toll from the virus was being dishonestly inflated.

Ernst replied that she is also “so skeptical” of the official COVID-19 death count.

“These healthcare providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” the senator added.

There is no bonus paid to doctors for reporting COVID-19 deaths. Medicaid does add a 20 percent increase in its payments to healthcare providers who treat COVID-19 patients covered by the program to help cover the higher costs associated with treating the virus.

IMS said in an email sent this week to its more than 6,000 members that it had contacted Ernst’s office after her comments in Black Hawk were reported by The Courier. The email was a follow-up to an unclear joint statement issued by IMS leaders and Ernst’s office that the group had emailed to its members. On Thursday, Pat Rynard of Iowa Starting Line published both the joint statement and subsequent email sent the same night as the joint statement.

The email explained the joint statement to IMS members was the result of a phone call leaders had with Ernst on Sept. 4.

“The Senator apologized on the call for what she described as misstatements on her behalf but stopped short of committing to a public apology,” the email said. “She did commit to further clarification to begin rebuilding patient trust in the provider community.”

The joint statement had resulted in “a number of questions and concerns from members,” the emailed clarification said.

According to IMS leaders, they were able during the call with Ernst “to educate the senator and her staff… illuminating the truths around billing, coding, and diagnosis classifications, as well as the misunderstandings and concerns articulated at her Waterloo event.”

The email said IMS leaders would continue to work with Ernst and staff to further educate them.

“Let us be clear, IMS does not condone the implications that Iowa physicians are intentionally misreporting COVID-19 patient data or in any way seeking to personally benefit from this pandemic,” the clarifying said.

The joint statement from Ernst’s office and IMS used less definitive language.

“Let us be clear, it is without doubt that the vast majority of Iowa physicians and clinicians are responding appropriately to COVID-19 and doing so in a manner that is deserving of public trust,” the joint statement said. “We must also acknowledge, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the substantial investment of public funds to support response efforts, that robust oversights are absolutely necessary.”

Ernst’s comments about doctors at Waterloo echoed a conspiracy theory being spread by supporters of QAnon, who believe statistics about the virus are being falsified to make President Trump look bad. QAnon is a largely online community of believers in a bizarre set of connected conspiracy theories. According to widely held beliefs among QAnon adherents, President Trump is a fearless fighter against corruption who is waging a secret war against a worldwide cabal of celebrities, liberal politicians and other “elites” that run human trafficking networks and engage in cannibalism to maintain their youthful good looks.

Trump himself retweeted a QAnon believer spreading the unsupported allegation that doctors are reporting fake COVID-19 deaths to collect extra money the day before Ernst implied doctors were doing just that. Twitter removed the original tweet for violating its policy against spreading false information about the pandemic.

The allegation for which Ernst privately apologized to IMS leaders came up at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ news conference on Thursday. The governor was asked if she believed the number of deaths in Iowa was being accurately reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health COVID-19 information site is correct, since Ernst had said she was “so skeptical” of such statistics.

“Yeah, I think that the state website is accurate,” Reynolds said.

At 10 a.m. on Friday, IDPH was reporting 1,208 Iowans had died of COVID-19, an increase of three deaths from the amount it reported at the same time on Thursday. According to the New York Times, at least 191,600 people nationwide had died from the virus as of Friday morning.

IDPH also reported at 10 a.m. that another 798 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours, including 35 residents of Johnson County and 52 residents of Linn County.

The department’s official 14-day positivity rate for COVID-19 for Johnson County was 16.3 percent on Friday. For Linn County, it was 8 percent.

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