Commentary: What price reform?

Apr 24, 2013

Last week, Governor Snyder announced plans to drastically limit benefits for those terribly injured in catastrophic auto accidents. And, as expected, legislation to do that was introduced yesterday.

Acting on behalf of the governor, State Representative Pete Lund of Shelby Township introduced two bills that would radically change how much care the badly maimed can get.

Currently, those benefits are administered and paid by an agency called the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, usually called MCCA. That would be scrapped in favor of a new Michigan Catastrophic Care Corporation, which would cap medical coverage at $1 million. Once a severely injured person’s care hit that limit, they would be out of luck. 

Additionally, the bills would restrict what hospitals, surgeons and other health care providers are paid for their services. They could no longer charge more than the level they would be reimbursed for by Medicare and Medicaid.

The bills would also limit what attendants taking care of the injured could be paid and how many hours they could be paid, and allow a family member living with the person to be paid $15 an hour to provide care for a limited time.

This all sounds reasonable, unless you’ve known one of the thousands of people badly injured in auto accidents every year. Then you realize you can blow through a million dollars in medical expenses in no time at all.

Thinking about what some folks’ lives would be like without continual care makes me shudder. Thinking about all the close calls I’ve had on the roads does too.

In return for giving up unlimited benefits, Michigan motorists, according to this bill, would get an annual rate reduction on their car insurance of $125 a car a year.

The bills were immediately attacked by a wide range of groups, including the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which called the governor’s proposal “a vehicle of the auto insurance industry to shift costs from their books to the state Medicaid system and the taxpayers.”  Well, it is pretty clear there is truth in that. But even the hospital association and a group called the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault agreed that some reforms and cost containment are needed.

So I turned to a person whose judgment on this I trust: Dr. Joe Schwarz, a Battle Creek surgeon who served 16 years in the state senate and two in Congress. I caught him as he was preparing to do surgery on a man who has been with his patient for 36 years, a quadriplegic whose throat was crushed when he crashed a car into a tree. He needs a procedure every 6 months to change a tube that keeps his throat open.

“His family were tenant farmers and had nothing.” Schwarz said. The current system has kept him alive.

Schwarz knows that costs are “way out of whack.”  But he added, “Let’s take a look at the whole system. I’d start with hospital charges and charges by predatory physicians, but don’t disassemble something that truly injured people, like my patient, will need all their lives.

Hard to quarrel with that.

There’s a reason we keep the baby when we throw out the bathwater. Let’s hope our lawmakers figure it out.  

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.