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Ottawa Examines Health Coverage For Uninsured
A Muskegon County initiative that provides affordable health coverage to small businesses previously without is getting attention in neighboring Ottawa County, where early discussions have begun about possibly replicating the effort.
A mid-December meeting of county, health care and chamber of commerce representatives in the Grand Haven area found enough interest to at least explore the idea. The effort will initially focus on exploring whether a similar program is viable in Ottawa County.
“If we have a fair amount of people in that category, then we ought to do something to provide a service for them,” said state Sen. Leon Stille, a Spring Lake Republican whose legislative district includes Muskegon and portions of Ottawa County.
Stille organized the meeting as way to initiate discussion on the issue. One focus is to begin exploring whether it’s possible to replicate or extend a Muskegon County program, Access Health, into northwestern Ottawa County. Access Health and other programs like it leverage existing Medicaid funding with privates grants and low premiums paid by employees and employers to provide low-cost health coverage to the working uninsured.
Formed in 1999 by the Muskegon Community Health Project, a community-based initiative that examines and addresses health-care access issues in Muskegon County, Access Health now provides health coverage to more than 300 small businesses.
Replicating the program elsewhere requires backers to first find out how many working uninsured people there are in Ottawa County and whether the county can redirect Medicaid funding to such an effort, as 12 other counties statewide have already done — including neighboring Kent County, where the non-profit Kent Health Plan was formed late last year and begins enrolling small businesses this summer.
While those are major questions to answer, and they potentially pose substantial hurdles to overcome, there was a consensus among the interested parties attending the December meeting to explore the initiative.
“It’s something that we are at least interested in looking at the opportunities,” said Joy Gaasch, president of The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. “It’s certainly worth pursuing.”
The number of uninsured working persons is getting increased attention as both a health-care access and an economic development issue in an era of rapidly escalating health care costs that make it increasingly harder for small businesses to afford employee health coverage.
That’s why the Grand Haven chamber is interested in participating in crafting an initiative similar to Access Health, or simply extending that program into Ottawa County, Gaasch said.
“We all know there’s got to be reforms in health care. There’s got to be some changes and there’s got to be some new products out there that have to be offered. We just have to find them,” Gaasch said.
The Access to Health Care Coalition, a statewide group of health care and business interests, estimates that more than 1.1 million Michigan residents are without health coverage. About 75 percent of the individuals are working, typically in low-wage jobs, the coalition reported last spring.
The net result for hospitals across the state was $823 million in unpaid medical bills in 2000, much of which was generated by people without health insurance who visited hospital emergency rooms when they had a medical problem but couldn’t pay the bill. That’s about $150 million more than what went unpaid in 1999, according to the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.
Helping to craft a program that can make a dent in the amount of uncompensated care provided both locally and statewide — an amount ultimately shifted to people with insurance — is the basis for North Ottawa Community Health System’s interest in exploring the initiative, President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Funk said.
“We’re willing to participate in any program that makes sense,” Funk said. “The bottom line here is if the numbers work out and there’s enough people who are eligible, we’re ready to do what we can to better serve the community.”
While the number of working uninsured persons in Ottawa County remains an unknown, there is data to suggest that the problem locally is not much different than elsewhere in Michigan.
A report the Michigan Department of Community Health published in October last year on the state’s non-elderly uninsured population shows that 14.3 percent of the people in the Muskegon-Holland-Grand Rapids region are without health coverage.
That compares with an uninsured population of 13.5 percent statewide and 14.3 percent in Detroit.
While the programs represent a strong effort to begin reducing the number people whose ability to access health care is limited because they are without insurance, backers of efforts such as Access Health and Kent Health Plan are quick to point out that they are not the cure-all for what ails health care and serve only as a bridge for small businesses until they can afford commercial insurance coverage.
The low-cost coverage offered, because it’s designed as affordable for both the employer and employees, also is often limited in scope and only good at care providers within the respective county. The programs also have been slow to catch on with small businesses.
Still, said Vondie Woodbury of the Muskegon Community Health Project, Medicaid-backed initiatives are an effective way to better spend the money and extend coverage to people and small businesses that have always gone without.
Those small businesses that have enrolled in Access Health also have been able to stabilize their workforce and attract a higher caliber of employee because they can now afford to offer health coverage, Woodbury said.
“It takes care of a tier of businesses and individuals,” she said.