State rep. wants investigation after Cherry Health, CBS debacle

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A state representative from West Michigan is calling for an investigation following a widely-publicized flop involving CBS News and Grand Rapids-based Cherry Health.

Cherry Health has admitted that staffers joined what was presented as a line of patients in their cars waiting to be tested for COVID-19. The video in question aired in a “CBS This Morning” story on May 1.

Critics called it an attempt to defraud the public and exaggerate the coronavirus crisis, while Cherry Health said it was a well-intentioned mistake on the part of an employee who was trying to demonstrate how busy the agency could get.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, said the incident needs to be investigated. He is calling on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to make it happen, sending her a May 8 letter (PDF) to that effect.

“We’re talking about a pretty pertinent issue here. This is a national scandal that gives a black eye to Michigan,” Johnson told News 8 over the phone Monday evening. “We want to make sure as we are being responsible in the policy decisions we make that we are getting proper information from those on the ground — making sure that we are not squandering taxpayer dollars to dishonest institutions.”

Cherry Health has said the staffers joined the line because patients arriving for testing did not want to be filmed by the CBS News crew. They allowed the patients to enter for testing outside of the view of the cameras.

Cherry Health CEO Tasha Blackmon issued a statement in response to Johnson’s letter Monday evening.

“I haven’t spoken to Representative Johnson, so I don’t have any knowledge of an investigation being filed,” Blackmon said. “If Representative Johnson would like to speak with me directly, I would be more than willing to clear up any questions that he has.”

The Cherry Health employee who got team members to join the line was concerned that with so many patients declining to be filmed, the testing service would not look as busy as usual.

No testing materials were used on the employees and none of them were counted in reports filed with the state; they simply drove through the line, Blackmon has said.

Blackmon said neither she nor CBS News was aware that this was happening while she was being interviewed by the news crew.

She said those assigning political motives to the situation are wrong and some of the reporting behind it has been “unfair.”

“The real story here is that our heroic staff have been risking their lives fighting COVID-19 on the front lines,” she said in a statement last week.

Johnson said he has never had reason to question Cherry Health’s credibility until now.

“I would surely hope that this is just a one-time scenario, but considering the amount of times that they have lied about this, it does draw into question whether we can trust them in other areas as well,” Johnson said.  “That’s why we need an investigation. This is an entity that does receive taxpayer dollars. Were they trying to inflate the numbers make it look greater so that way they receive more money? I don’t know.”

Johnson said he has not received a response to his letter from Whitmer’s office.

News 8 reached out to the governor’s office Monday evening and will update this report when and if Whitmer or her staff respond.