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Fix the damn insurance

No-fault and roads are tied as the voters’ biggest concerns. What will Whitmer do? What can she do?

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer started meeting individually with the Republican Senate majority leader and House speaker this week in the hopes of crafting a deal that will raise more road funding money while making cost-saving reforms to the state’s auto insurance law.

In the past, Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake,  and Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, have met with the Democratic governor in a group setting with Democratic legislative leaders. Now, days after both chambers pushed out significant, wholesales changes to Michigan’s no-fault law, she’s taking meetings one-on-one.

“The governor has always made it clear she is willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with her,” said Whitmer Press Secretary Tiffany Brown. “The administration looks forward to ongoing discussions to find real solutions that improve our roads and benefit Michigan residents.”

Shirkey told reporters he’d be “delighted” to meet with the governor. Chatfield said, “As I’ve always said, I’m willing to work with anyone and everyone to reform our broken car insurance system. I look forward to my meeting with the governor to talk about how we can best lower car insurance rates.”Publicly, Whitmer has been a blank slate on the state’s auto no-fault law. She’s not in support of “red-lining,” the banning of selling insurance to people in certain areas. She believes state regulators should have more power in determining rates.

But when it comes to the salient issues — consumer choice on personal injury protection coverage as opposed to mandatory lifetime coverage, a fee schedule for hospitals and other providers, how a fraud authority should be set up — she’s kept her powder dry.

She’s been all about “fixing the damn roads” and letting the Legislature take auto insurance as its big issue. Now that auto insurance could be on her plate any day, the coming negotiations will signal whether the current split leadership makeup can accomplish major policy reforms or is destined to devolve into a do-nothing hyper-partisan pissing match that voters routinely expect out of Washington, D.C.

Interesting, both issues — car insurance and road conditions — are tied at 23% as the voters’ top legislative priority, according to recent Target Insyght poll commissioned by MIRS.

Riding the strong public momentum toward auto no-fault reform, legislative Republicans pushed out measures last week that were surprisingly comprehensive and had defenders of the current system on their heels.

Skeptics of the Legislature’s no-fault auto insurance reform plan shifted their criticism. The new line is that allowing drivers to lower their personal injury protection coverage will cost taxpayers more in higher Medicaid costs.

Steven Sinas, the legal counsel for the Coalition to Protect Auto No Fault, said the real debate over SB 1 and HB 4397 is about health care coverage. Both bills, he said, create “government no-fault.”

It would be a cost shift. Ratepayers’ auto insurance bill may go down, but everybody’s taxes would go up to pay for the catastrophic injuries of Medicaid-eligible drivers who opted out of unlimited lifetime benefits.

“What we have here in America is a broken health care system, and because that health care system is broken, we need systems like no-fault to come in and pay for medical treatment that arises out of a crash,” Sinas said.

The Senate Fiscal Agency put these costs at $65.9 million over 10 years. The Michigan Association of Justice jumped on this cost shift in its eight-point opposition statement.

“The bills are so weak and full of holes,” the association said in a press release Tuesday, that families who pick the cheapest personal injury protection options or get in the most catastrophic car accidents “will go bankrupt and end up on taxpayer-funded health care.”

HB 4397 sponsor Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, called the arguments “scare tactics” that are not grounded in reality. For one, Medicaid — unlike Michigan’s current unlimited lifetime catastrophic coverage — operates on a provider fee schedule, so the costs connected to care will naturally be lower.

Also, if a person is seriously injured in an at-home accident or is diagnosed with a terminal disease, health insurance or Medicaid picks up the tab.

“Why is it that if I’m inside something with four wheels and a seat, I get different insurance coverage?” Sheppard asked.

The three-term House member also noted that if covering the expenses of car accident victims with catastrophic injuries was such a large cost driver, the 49 other states that count on a person’s health insurance to pick up the tab should have higher premium costs than Michigan.

They do not, he said.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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