Taking It To The Streets

March 28, 2008
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Although the group isn’t looking for a Cadillac-type plan with a laundry list of lavish amenities, a grassroots nonprofit organization is looking to get every Michigan resident covered by an affordable and comprehensive health insurance plan.

HealthCare for Michigan is the driving force behind an initiative that would put universal health care on the November ballot, providing the group collects enough valid signatures from registered voters by the end of June. A “yes” vote at the polls would amend the Michigan Constitution and require lawmakers to enact coverage as outlined by the proposal.

Supporters of the ballot petition believe the effort has as much to do with the health of the state’s economy as it does with the wellness of the state’s citizens.

John Freeman, a state legislator from 1993 to 1999, heads HealthCare for Michigan. He said the group’s campaign is similar to the grassroots movement that brought universal coverage to Massachusetts, an effort that successfully changed that state’s constitution. The amendment made health care a critical component of Massachusetts’ society and required the state to tackle the issue in a way that checked the rising cost of care for businesses and individuals.

The Potential Ballot Amendment

HealthCare for Michigan proposes to add the following amendment to the Michigan Constitution:

“The State Legislature shall pass laws to make sure that every Michigan resident has affordable and comprehensive health care coverage through a fair and cost-effective financing system. The Legislature is required to pass a plan that, through public or private measures, controls health care costs and provides for medically necessary preventive, primary, acute and chronic health care needs.”

“They did not push a specific proposal; they just wanted to put this language into the constitution with the theory that, if this is adopted by the people, it would then send a signal to the Legislature and the governor of Massachusetts that they need to work on this issue promptly,” said Freeman, who served in the state House as an Oakland County Democrat.

“It would also give them political cover to make some tough votes. Now that the people had voted and put the language into the constitution, they could put something together and move it.”

But as Freeman noted, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney carved out a package that offered health insurance coverage to each resident before the proposal even reached voters.

“They moved a bipartisan package of bills through the (state) Legislature. It had most of the key stakeholders on board, and they moved forward,” he said.

Freeman said HealthCare for Michigan wouldn’t mind seeing state lawmakers and Gov. Jennifer Granholm adopt the same inventiveness that their Massachusetts counterparts did a few years back. Nor did he think businesses in Michigan would mind, as he feels they are handcuffed by the current situation while trying to compete in the global marketplace.

Freeman said Michigan’s employers have to provide insurance coverage to employees to lure the best talent to their companies, while some of their key foreign competitors can rely on the less-expensive plans their governments offer to do that, reducing their costs to operate well below what state firms face.

“So you have an unfair global playing field and an unfair competitive advantage against Michigan businesses, affecting big businesses,” Freeman said.

“But small businesses are also affected immensely, because for them to attract good talent to work for their businesses, they pretty much need to provide benefits. Everyone who works wants to get health insurance, but the cost of insurance keeps going up for small businesses. In a lot of cases, they can’t make a profit; they can’t stay in business and still pay health care benefits.”

Freeman added that entrepreneurs, who pay a higher proportion of federal taxes than company employees do, are also stuck with having to buy expensive individual plans to cover themselves and their families. Many can’t afford the coverage as a start-up expense, and they go without insurance.

“So the high cost of health care to businesses is just contributing to the crisis in Michigan,” he said.

The campaign, though, isn’t only about insuring the uninsured and containing the costs for businesses. It’s also about protecting those who have coverage but have seen their co-pays, premiums and deductibles rise year after year. Freeman said many of them are waiting for the other shoe to drop, and they fear someday they won’t have coverage either.

“The bottom line is, we have a crisis in Michigan. The federal government is not moving on it right now, so we feel Michigan can no longer afford to wait around for a benevolent angel in Washington to solve the problem,” said Freeman.

“We want to figure out what we can do in Michigan to resolve the problem or at least a portion of the problem. We’ve looked around the country, and we feel the Massachusetts approach is the best approach for Michigan, where we don’t come to the table with a preconceived plan. We just want to put the language in the constitution.”

Freeman said the reason the ballot petition doesn’t call for a specific type of insurance plan is HealthCare for Michigan wants all the stakeholders to have input into what form the plan should take. The group feels big business, small business, farmers, urban dwellers, suburbanites, labor groups and others should be able to comment on a potential plan.

“This issue affects everybody,” he said. “It affects their personal health, and it affects every single business in the state. It affects every single labor union. It affects every single form of government. So we need to bring everybody together to figure out what makes sense.”

But HealthCare for Michigan does call for a statewide health care system to provide comprehensive coverage to all residents, along with public accountability for coverage of services and continuous care that is portable. The group feels a system should emphasize preventive and primary care, eliminate disparities in access to care, and include parity for behavioral care. They want the plan to be accessible and easy to use, to protect a person’s right to choose a care provider, and to promote economic well-being for the state. HCM also wants the system to be affordable, cost effective and economically sustainable.

A copy of the resolution is available at www.michuhcan.com.

Freeman said the goal is to collect 475,000 signatures by the end of June, or 95,000 more than is needed to get the petition on the November ballot.

Freeman said volunteers involved with the statewide movement have taken petitions to their churches, family gatherings and other events they regularly attend, and plan to be in more public places when the weather improves.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is expected to take a formal position on the ballot petition this month. Freeman he said he plans to talk with most of the state’s largest insurance companies about the effort this spring.

Consumers, employers and governmental units spend about $60 billion a year on health care in Michigan annually, and from 50,000 to 100,000 residents lose their coverage each year because of higher premiums. HealthCare for Michigan estimates that roughly 1 million people in Michigan are uninsured, and those without coverage raise the cost of insurance for residents that have it.

“I’m not looking to have a Cadillac plan. I’m looking to have a very modest proposal that eliminates the key concerns of people. And if more people get insurance who don’t have insurance, then the cost will go down for those that are provided insurance by employers,” said Freeman.

“A New York Times front-page article reported that about 8.5 percent of all premiums is a subsidy for those without insurance. … Now, if you’re a business and you have 20 employees that you’re providing health insurance to, 8.5 percent gets to be a big chunk of change after a while. And if you’re a large business like General Motors or a large parts manufacturer on the West Side, that adds up real quick.” HQX

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