This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on Feb. 17, 2019.
I’m writing this from a hospital room in the Pediatric ICU. One of my sweet little nine-month-old daughters (yes, twins!) is dealing with RSV, and is sleeping a few feet away with a feeding tube down her throat and artificial oxygen being steadily pumped into her nose. She looks a little bit like E.T. when he’s sick (#joketocope).
And while my gratitude for the care we’ve been receiving, both at the hospital and all the help for us and her sister at home, and her steady recovery is on the top of my mind, my gratitude for having healthcare is not far behind. Amidst all the chaos and worry that comes from being a layperson in a medical crisis—especially with a baby involved—there’s always the needling thought of “How much is this going to cost?” I think that question is stronger for parents…and stronger still for parents of multiples.
The answer for us, thankfully, is not much. We have health insurance and nearly all of the costs associated with my daughter’s care should be covered.
But for a family just like us, with a baby just as sick as ours, the exact same care would easily cost tens of thousands of dollars without insurance. No parent, and no person, should ever have to weigh their health and their lives against their incomes. But serious medical costs without healthcare are often higher than the average annual salary and would bankrupt most families. A year’s worth of work spent on a few nights in a hospital.
But our own little personal health scare is just the cherry on top for a big week for healthcare last week.
Last Thursday, we lost a giant not just in the worlds of Michigan politics or health policy, but in the literal world. After a long and fruitful life, nearly two-thirds of which was spent serving in Congress, John Dingell passed away.
As the news sites and my political friends’ Facebook feeds lit up with memories of his general public service and sharp wit, most lifted up John Dingell’s work on healthcare and the belief that it should be afforded to all people, whether or not they could afford it.
In his own spot-on parting shot in the Washington Post, he talked about the fight to create Medicare so health costs would not continue to bankrupt seniors. Dingell, carrying on the work of his father and namesake, introduced his own national health insurance bill at the start of every Congress. And he was proudly and prominently seated next to President Barack Obama when he signed the Affordable Care Act into law.
My own brush with John Dingell’s greatness was healthcare-related, too. When I was working for the Senate Democratic Caucus under now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer, we made a big, bipartisan push to pass Medicaid expansion in Michigan—a strong and sound policy that was getting entangled in the politics of the Affordable Care Act.
During what was intended to be a procedural Senate session day in the summer of 2013, the Senate chamber was largely stripped of its pomp and circumstance as well as its desks and carpet. Senate Democratic Leader Whitmer and caucus members stood on the bare concrete just on the other side of yellow caution tape cordoning off the floor and called for action on the Healthy Michigan Plan. And with us on that day, smiling over the fireworks, echoing the effort to improve healthcare access for Michiganders with low incomes, and shaking hands with political fangirls and fanboys like me, was the Dean of Congress and a healthcare superhero.
The Healthy Michigan Plan ultimately passed later that summer in bipartisan fashion, and has been a resounding success for 680,000 Michigan residents and their families, the state’s health industry and economy ever since. But unfortunately, some of the very lawmakers who helped pass it in 2013 passed legislation to hamper it in 2018 by adding work requirements and complicated bureaucracy to the program.
Last week also brought new news on the devastating potential impact of these work requirements, and new hope that they could still be remedied.
Manatt, a national consulting firm, released a new report on Feb. 6 finding that “an estimated 61,000 to 183,000 people—between 9 and 27 percent of the State’s Medicaid expansion population—will lose Medicaid coverage in Michigan over a one-year period.” Then on Friday, Gov. Whitmer issued a letter to the Centers on Medicare and Medicaid Services approving the waiver request for Healthy Michigan Plan work requirements while outlining her concerns and goals to work on them with the Republican-led Legislature.
The Michigan League for Public Policy has always stood up for healthcare for all residents, especially those with lower incomes. We fought these Healthy Michigan Plan work requirements tooth and nail because of the risk of complicated and outright lost health coverage, and have made protecting Healthy Michigan and Medicaid an important part of our Owner’s Manual for Michigan policy agenda and our priorities for Michigan’s 2020 budget.
The governor also raised the need to protect the Healthy Michigan Plan in her State of the State address while the architect of the work requirement legislation sat over her right shoulder. As I drove back from the Capitol to the hospital after her speech, I tried to remember what Republican legislators’ reaction to that line was. I tried to understand why any elected official would be working to make it harder for people to get healthcare, not easier. And I wondered if they would feel differently if their baby was in the ICU, and healthcare was the difference between quality care and peace of mind and financial ruin.