The ugly truth of Michigan’s no-fault reform bill

by | Jun 2, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proudly signed the new auto no-fault insurance reform bill last week, she did so in broad daylight with the power elite on Mackinac Island. Too bad the bill itself was whipped together in the wee hours, hidden from any serious public debate, and rushed through a vote just before a holiday weekend.

There’s a reason people do things in the dark. Often, those things are shameful. And when the light shines on the coming years in our state, it will sadly reveal the shameful thing our legislators just did.

Especially to our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s estimated that between 16,000 and 18,000 Michiganders are victims of traumatic auto accidents that left them with spinal cord or brain issues, according to industry experts and the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association. If you are one of those, you already know how awful this new law is. If you are not, you should care about those who are.

Because one day, you could be one of them.

Anyone can get in a serious car crash. And if you do, or your loved ones do, you’re going to wish your legislator never voted for the handful of beans you’re being promised in insurance savings.

Going out of business

Instead, because we had our auto no-fault law, Coulston didn’t go bankrupt. She got care, good care, in facilities that specialized in her neurological issues, not nursing homes designed mostly for the elderly. She was able to slowly rebuild her life. In time, she opened a facility herself, called Walk The Line, in Southfield, a bright, state-of-the art rehab center for folks with brain or spinal issues.

It’s exactly those kind of places that are threatened now. Here’s what the legislators didn’t parade up on Mackinac (an island, ironically, with no cars). They didn’t parade that specialty treatment centers, residential homes for the brain and spinal cord injured, even private home health care providers that focus on the needs of catastrophic crash victims, are going to go out of business.

Out of business. That’s not hyperbole.

“We will shut down,” said John Cornack, who, for the last 25 years, has operated the Eisenhower Center in Ann Arbor, a comprehensive facility that takes care of 161 people, most of them victims of traumatic brain injury. Those people, with few other choices, will now lose this place — as will others who’ve been helped by similar quality centers around the state.

Why, you ask? “Basically this bill says we can only bill out 55% of the current rate,” explained Cornack, who is also the president of the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault (CPAN), which has tried to protect the beneficiaries of our auto no-fault system, but will now, like his business, he said, close down. “None of us were making 55% net profit. That would bankrupt us right there.

“I don’t know of one facility that could stay open at that rate.”

‘People will die’

This is the kind of thing no one was talking about at Mackinac. Everyone there seemed dazzled by the fact that insurance rates might come down, even though the insurance companies are already hedging on that idea.

One of the wooing arguments made by the insurance lobby was that the $220 per car we would have paid to sustain the old system was a waste, too expensive, and why should we bother? That’s almost laughable when you read the bill that eliminated it.

Because now, that $220 looks like the best insurance you could buy.

Think about it. For that $220 a year, if you were catastrophically injured by a car you drove, a car someone else drove, even if you didn’t even have a license but were hit while walking across the street — your needs were covered for the rest of your life.

Now? Well, if you caused the crash, you’re in trouble, because the injured party can sue you for their medical costs. If you didn’t cause the crash, you’ll likely need to go after the other driver for money, because once your own insurance plan runs out, as Cornack explained, “first you have to pay out of your own pocket — they call it spending down, a nice way of saying you’re slowly going bankrupt — and then you go on Medicaid.”

And if you think Medicaid is going to provide the same level of care that you could have gotten last week, you’re sorely mistaken. First of all, Medicaid — and Medicare — have a whole set of rules and limits on how much therapy, how many visits, etc. And now, thanks to the new law, there will be limits on the hours family caregivers can work, which will force people to bring outside workers into their home — if they can afford it.

Plus, the long-term care facilities provided by Medicaid/Medicare “are largely oriented to the geriatric population,” Coulston said. “Medicare services are not neuro-specialized programs. Programs that service people with severe brain injuries have specialized staff, specialized training and certification.”

Cornack was more succinct. “People will die,” he said.

The cost of catastrophic injury

Again, that is not hyperbole. Ask Katrina Kill of Bloomfield Hills. In 2004, her husband Michael was severely injured in a car crash with a train. It happened in Ohio, although he was driving a Michigan car. “The doctors in Ohio told us to find a nursing home,” Katrina said. “He was 19 at the time. Nineteen. One case manager after another has told us, ‘If he was in a nursing home, he would have died years ago.’ ”

Instead, because he lived in Michigan, after a coma and long stretches in intensive care, Michael was able to spend months in an acute in-hospital rehab facility, then discharged to a group home rehab facility, and eventually able to get 24-hour care at home.

“When I heard about this bill I was devastated, absolutely devastated,” Katrina Kill said. “There’s just no way the average person knows what a catastrophic injury means. There’s just no way to know what the cost really is, the daily toll on your family. And thank goodness people don’t know, because catastrophic injuries are really hard to deal with.”

Thanks to this law, they just got exponentially harder.

This is what change looks like

So what did we get for this expected closing of medical facilities that will strand patients and lay off thousands of health care workers? (Cornack says his Eisenhower Center employs 433 people; all of them will be out of work when it closes.) What did we get for the upcoming swollen Medicaid/Medicare rolls, and their facilities that may soon be filled beyond capacity? What did we get for creating a system where one catastrophically injured person may have a different fate than another, depending on the wealth and insurance level of the person in the other car?

We got a promise, that runs out in eight years, that our insurance rates will lower in certain categories (but no guarantees on others). We got a promise that insurance companies won’t use zip codes or credit scores to determine rates, but they will be able to use “territories” and credit reports.

And somehow, and it takes a higher pay grade than mine to understand this, we got the news that the roughly $20 billion that the MCCA collected over the years for catastrophically injured, under certain circumstances, can wind up in the hands of the auto insurers.

If we honestly believe this a win, then we deserve the lousy future we are about to get.

The ‘choices’ we now have

As for our new “choices” in insurance costs? It’s a shell game. Lawmakers wash their hands by saying “You can still get unlimited coverage if you want,” as if they really left an option to keep things as they are.

They didn’t. First of all, ask any lawmaker how much a policy like that will cost. Nobody knows yet. Because we have no idea what the insurance companies will charge for it. Whatever it is, it will be extremely high, and a huge percentage of the populace won’t be able to afford it. Those who can will likely be spending new money on higher liability insurance, since, now, if they cause an accident, their private wealth becomes a target.

Meanwhile, the best policy in the world won’t create centers that don’t exist, or reopen ones that will soon close down.

“The governor doesn’t understand that she not only decimated the care of the catastrophically injured who are in the system today, she also harmed the 500-600 people who will be entering the pool this year,” Cornack said. “These accidents don’t just go away. The care will be much worse.

“People will die. They will die because they’ll be in a nursing home. Remember, the typical age of a traumatically brain injured victim is usually 30 to 40 years old. They’re going to be put in places where people go for their final days.

“We had a system that worked really well for them.’’

Now it’s gone.

Ignoring the most vulnerable

And for what? If you really think car insurance rates in Detroit are going to drop from over $5,000 a year to some low national average, come back in three years and show me your paperwork. When, in the past, has any promise by insurance companies to lower rates proved to be a long-term truth? The tangible benefits to the insurance industry are clear in this bill; the ones to the people are still foggy. There’s a reason for that.

So why did this bill pass – without proper hearings, without allowing people like Erica Coulston or Katrina Kill or John Cornack to be heard? You’d have to ask your representatives who voted for it. You might also check to see if any campaign contributions came their way from the insurance lobby.

A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. The nearly 18,000 auto crash victims in this state who need help walking, eating, going to the bathroom, or being carried from place to place – those are our vulnerable citizens. And they didn’t get a voice in this. If they did, they would have begged, pleaded, please, find savings another way, don’t take away the system that gives us at least a chance at a robust life.

If you don’t watch out for the most vulnerable in your state, you are not doing your duty as an elected official or a human being. Instead of applauding themselves at one of the most exclusive vacation spots in the state, Whitmer and those lawmakers should be forced to walk past a group of traumatic brain and spinal cord injured every day on their way to work. Let’s see how much clapping they hear then.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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