Commentary: Catastrophic health care

Apr 22, 2013

Last week, Governor Snyder announced plans to introduce legislation that, if passed, would essentially mean that insurance companies and the state would no longer provide virtually unlimited benefits to those injured in catastrophic car accidents.

Currently, victims whose health care costs exceed half a million dollars have their care covered by the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association. The governor would cap those benefits at a million dollars. The next day, his proposal was attacked by an opponent who called it, “an embarrassment to the Republican party.”

“The governor misses the big picture,” he added. What is most interesting about this is that the man attacking the governor‘s idea is not a liberal Democrat or a leader of a victim‘s rights group, but one of the state‘s most prominent conservative Republicans, L. Brooks Patterson, the longtime czar of Oakland County.

Brooks knows what he is talking about. Last August, he and his driver were T-boned in a car accident that very nearly took their lives. Patterson was in a coma for days, suffered multiple broken bones and was in the hospital for nearly two months.

His driver was left a quadriplegic. The costs of the driver’s medical care, according to Patterson, probably exceeded a million dollars within a few weeks. “I just think the governor misses the big picture,” Patterson said.

Well, on Saturday morning I had breakfast with a group of Lansing old-timers, Republicans and Democrats. All of them thought the governor missed the big picture, big time.

One of their wives needs lifetime care from a catastrophic accident years ago. Another ran up half a million dollars in medical bills in three weeks. What the governor wants simply isn‘t realistic, they said, and none felt his proposal is likely to pass.

Well, I think that a reasonable person would conclude that on this issue, the governor has been remarkably tone-deaf. It also appears that the governor’s plan was crafted with the insurance companies in mind.

While it would give citizens a car insurance rate rollback, the insurance companies would stand to make billions in profits from the legislation, according to a spokesman for the Coalition Protecting Auto No Fault. Ironically, that spokesman, John Truscott, is a former top aide to Republican Governor John Engler.

But one can also understand where the governor is coming from. The average person with a college degree makes a little over two million dollars in their lifetime. You don’t have to be Einstein to realize that you can have only so many people racking up unlimited millions of dollars worth of medical bills, before the whole system collapses.

Michigan does have the most generous system in the nation, when it comes to catastrophic health care costs, and it is almost certainly true that some providers know this, and try to take advantage of the opportunity.

The governor’s proposal attempts to get at this. But what opponents fear is that what it will do instead is leave a lot of badly injured people broke, suffering, and in inferior nursing homes.

What’s needed, really, is a serious nationwide examination of health care costs. Unless and until we do that, we are merely designating winners and losers -- and putting off the inevitable.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.