GR Chamber Thumbs Down on Ballot Issue

May 5, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Good idea, poor execution:  That’s the reaction from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce to an effort to put a ballot proposal before voters that would amend the state constitution to require the Legislature to provide health care for everyone.

“It’s a dumb idea,” said Dr. Paul Farr of Grand River Gastroenterology, a member of the chamber committee that reviewed the proposal and a former president of the Michigan State Medical Society.

Farr, who supports universal health care, said he thinks the ballot proposal is the wrong way to go about it.

“Don’t go fooling around with the constitution,” he said. “The language in this amendment is so vague it really doesn’t tell us how we’re going to do this at a time when the budget is down and unemployment is up.”

John Freeman, a lawyer in Southeast Michigan and former Democratic legislator who is spearheading the petition drive as director of Healthcare for Michigan, said Farr’s fears are unfounded.

“There’s already language in there that they put there in 1963 that talks about health care being a primary public concern and that legislation should address those concerns,” Freeman said. “The bottom line is that what we’re trying to do is deepen that commitment to health care reform.”

The petition drive so far has gathered 100,000 of the 340,000 signatures needed by July 1 to place on the Nov. 4 ballot a constitutional amendment that would require the Legislature to come up with a plan for comprehensive, cost-effective health care plans for people in Michigan.

The proposal has garnered support from organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons, the Michigan Osteopathic Association, the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, Michigan Primary Care Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and a variety of medical student associations, unions, churches and political groups.

The Michigan State Medical Society was expected to discuss the proposal at its annual conference over the weekend and perhaps take a stance, said spokesman David Fox.

Freeman acknowledged that his campaign has made few forays into West Michigan.

“I agree that is a failing on our part. It’s not intended by design. We’ve attempted to make this a statewide campaign,” Freeman said, adding that he’s had a couple of press conferences and added a few churches as allies in Grand Rapids. A related organization, Michigan Universal Healthcare Access Network, meets periodically in Muskegon.

In a statement, Chamber President & CEO Jeanne Englehart said the proposal leaves unanswered questions: “How much will the plan cost? Who pays? What will be the minimum level of coverage, and what defines ‘affordable’ or ‘cost-effective?’

“It’s not designed to be specific. It’s designed to be general,” Freeman countered. “It’s not that vague. We talk about the fact that health care costs are out of control and we want the Legislature to figure out how to make a cost-effective system. We talk about the fact that we need universal coverage. We need to figure out how to provide health insurance for everybody.

“The key thing is, this is a broad framework, and we want the Legislature to move specific proposals to flesh out the framework,” Freeman added.

“One of the things my health care committee wanted to make very clear is we support their goals,” said Andy Johnston, public policy coordinator for the chamber. “However, the way they are going about it is irresponsible. It likely will require a substantial tax increase or severe budget cuts to pay for it.”

“It’s like putting in the constitution that Michigan is going to have sun and 75 degrees for our tourist season. You can’t make that happen,” added Robert L. Hughes, CEO of Advantage Benefits Group in Grand Rapids.

Hughes, who is chairman of the chamber’s health care committee, said he would like to see the Legislature tackle the health care issue without prodding from a constitutional amendment, but by bringing together interested parties to work out a solution. That solution should include provisions that promote an individual’s responsibility for his or her own health, he added.

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