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Iowa medical group: Sen. Ernst's embrace of a COVID conspiracy theory 'offensive'

Iowa medical group: Sen. Ernst's embrace of a COVID conspiracy theory 'offensive'

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U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, wearing a rain poncho, takes down the information of a person who is picking up items during a diaper drive-thru Wednesday, July 15, 2020, at the Davenport WIC Office. Hiney Heroes, Community Health Care, the National Diaper Bank Network and Huggies partnered to bring free diapers to people financially impacted by coronavirus.

DES MOINES — An organization that represents 6,000 physicians, residents and medical students in Iowa discussed with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst her recent questioning of the legitimacy of how hospitals are reporting COVID-19 deaths.

The organization issued two news releases about the meeting: one after it happened and a second, more strongly worded release, after its members reacted to the first.

At a town hall meeting in Black Hawk County on Aug. 31, an attendee told Ernst he believes COVID-19 deaths are being overcounted. Ernst responded by saying she, too, was “skeptical” of the numbers.

A growing conspiracy theory suggests physicians and hospitals are overcounting COVID-19 deaths in order to receive more federal funding. The theory has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers and medical health experts.

The Iowa Medical Society met with Ernst on Friday, Sept. 4, to discuss her comments. On Wednesday night, they issued a group statement about their meeting.

“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 the public trust,” the joint statement read. “We must also acknowledge, given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic and the substantial investment of public funds to support response efforts, that robust oversights are absolutely necessary. The Iowa Medical Society and Senator Ernst fully support existing and additional oversight measures to ensure that taxpayer dollars are utilized in the most efficient, effective, and appropriate way possible.”

Just more than two hours later, the Iowa Medical Society issued a second statement, acknowledging the organization in the interim “heard a number of questions and concerns from members.”

The organization’s second statement described Ernst’s initial comments in much more harsh terms, starting by calling them “offensive,” and noting that the group’s leaders, “emphasized the danger of furthering mistruths or in any way implying that Iowa physicians would intentionally misreport or misrepresent the data demonstrating the impact of COVID-19 in Iowa communities.”

The organization also said Ernst on the call apologized for her comments, but declined to pledge to make a public apology.

“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. What we do believe is that patient trust and safety is paramount,” the second statement said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, like Ernst a Republican, said Thursday the COVID-19 death data on Iowa’s state website is “accurate.”

The Iowa Democratic Party on Thursday held a virtual news conference, which included a pair of physicians who spoke on the issue.

“I took offense to Ernst’s accusations against health care providers and the suggestion that we would conspire with hospitals to submit false diagnoses and claims to Medicare, Medicaid or any payer,” said Dr. Glenn Hurst, a rural family medicine provider from Minden and medical director at four nursing homes in Pottawattamie County. Hurst has donated to myriad Democratic candidates and causes in Iowa over the past three years, state campaign finance records show. “I took offense because of my time spent as a provider in a nursing home that suffered an outbreak that affected almost the entire staff and the population of a 41-bed nursing home.”

Hurst said physicians do not get paid by diagnosis, and that hospitals have “little to no influence” over a physician’s diagnosis.

Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, said when COVID-19 diagnoses also include other conditions, that’s not a sign of foul play, but rather that humans often are dealing with multiple medical conditions.

“To say that we’re somehow increasing the number in the COVID column by not calling it these other things is just trying to say that as people we live very simple lives and you only ever get exposed to one thing. Which just isn’t the way life happens,” Petersen said. “Life is messy, and usually if you’ve got one problem, it spirals on itself to snowball into a bunch of problems. And that’s really what we see here.”

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