Sen. Joni Ernst told supporters in Black Hawk County on Monday she thinks the country’s COVID-19 death count is being inflated by unscrupulous doctors who have a financial motive to lie about patients dying from the virus.
“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?” Ernst said during a campaign stop at the Black Hawk County Corn and Soybean Association Test Plot, an annual event, the Courier reported.
The senator made her unfounded claim after a man said during the event’s question-and-answer period that he thought the number of COVID-19 deaths is actually much lower than what the CDC reports.
Ernst replied that she is also “so skeptical” of the official COVID-19 death count, before suggesting healthcare professionals are committing fraud.
“Asked to clarify her remarks after the event, Ernst said that’s ‘what I’ve heard’ from healthcare providers, but wasn’t sure if that meant numbers were being inflated,” the Courier’s Annie Rivers reported.
“They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-related illness or death,” Ernst told Rivers. “I heard the same thing on the news. … They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”
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. Medicaid “provides health coverage for some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities,” as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains. The program’s 20 percent fee increase is intended to help cover the higher cost of treating COVID-19 patients.
There is no evidence that healthcare providers are faking COVID-19 deaths. Public health experts believe the number of COVID-19 deaths has actually been underreported in the United States.
It’s not known where Ernst claims to have heard this on “the news,” because the senator has not been responding to questions from reporters since Rivers’ story was published, but on Sunday President Trump retweeted a person who made this claim about doctors, money and the COVID-19 death count. Twitter removed the original tweet for violating its policy against spreading false information about the pandemic.
The Twitter user Trump retweeted is a follower of QAnon, a largely online community of believers in bizarre 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.
Evidence of Trump’s own corruption is the result of conspirators manipulating the truth, they claim.
Many believe John F. Kennedy, Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, faked his death and is now secretly working with Trump to bring the international network of cannibals, etc., to justice.
Outlandish though their beliefs are, QAnon followers are not simply a collection of harmless, if confused, people. In May, the FBI said QAnon was a potential source of domestic terrorism.
“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the agency said in a May 30 report addressing QAnon and a related set of conspiracy theories falsely accusing a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant of being a hub of international criminal activity. (“Pizzagate” is one of a number of violent incidents perpetrated by QAnon adherents in the last five years.)
Infectious disease doctors in Iowa were dismayed by Ernst’s suggestion that they are greedy frauds.
This is why the claim by @SenJoniErnst is so painful. Healthcare workers are facing the brunt of the pandemic, putting their lives on the line. Hospitals are near bankruptcy and yet all of us are scammers? Attacking those on the front lines during a pandemic. Unreal https://t.co/PO4dSLLX6z
— (@eliowa) September 2, 2020
Theresa Greenfield, the Democrat challenging Ernst in the November election, called the first-term Republican senator’s comments “appalling.”
It's appalling for you to say you're "so skeptical" of the toll this pandemic has on our families and communities across Iowa, @joniernst.
— Theresa Greenfield (@GreenfieldIowa) September 2, 2020
Ernst has been among the loyalest of Trump’s supporters in the U.S. Senate. She has voted in lockstep with the president’s wishes during his entire time in office. She has also voted to approve everyone Trump nominated for federal office, including a record-setting number of federal judges rated unqualified by the American Bar Association.
Ernst’s echoing of the QAnon material isn’t the only baseless conspiracy theory she’s shared recently.
During her speech at the Republican National Convention last week, Ernst dutifully repeated some of Trump’s baseless accusations about the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“If given power, they would essentially ban animal agriculture, and eliminate gas-powered cars,” Ernst said.
Even allowing for an exaggerated definition of the word “essentially,” this is not true.