Working Together For Michigan Consumers To be Healthy

Opening Remarks at the One Year Anniversary Celebration!

Good afternoon, I’m Don Hazaert, and it is my great honor to be the director of the Michigan Consumer for Healthcare.  Let me begin by first thanking the Michigan Health Policy Forum and the Michigan State University Institute for Health Care Studies for cosponsoring today’s event- and thank you Dean Rappley for that kind welcome.  Likewise, I would like to thank today’s honored speakers, Mr. Ron Pollack of Families USA, Congressman John Dingell and State Senator James Marleau.

In a world run amuck in hyperbole, I truly don’t think it is overstating matters to say that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a historic milestone in our nation’s history.  One hundred years ago today Teddy Roosevelt was running for President on a platform calling for guaranteed medical coverage for all Americans.  Any hope for meaningful healthcare reform in the century since seemed increasingly unlikely, as the forces benefiting from the status quo became increasingly entrenched, and the issue of health equity itself became increasingly politicized.

This makes the fact that Congress was finally able to muster the political will to pass the Affordable Care Act both historic and, when given time, I suspect, culturally transformational.  Even more fascinating perhaps is that the final legislation was ultimately so bipartisan in design and purpose.

That is probably an odd thing to hear me say with all of the huffing and puffing out there about “death panels” and “a government takeover of healthcare.”  But today is about facts and information that you can use about your future healthcare and the care of your loved ones, not huffing and puffing.

The concept that we call today the Affordable Care Act was originally designed by conservatives as a market-based alternative to the more liberal “single payer” concept that would have doctors and hospitals working for the government.

The conservative Heritage Foundation was the first to propose this “social contract,” as they called it, that would have the government making healthcare more affordable through tax subsidies while simultaneously mandating individuals, if they could afford it, purchase private insurance. Massachusetts, under the leadership of then Governor Mitt Romney, was the first to implement the Heritage Foundation’s social contract concept at the state level and it is the Massachusetts model on which the Affordable Care Act is based.

So, as I like to say, the Affordable Care Act was designed by conservatives and adopted by liberals.  Political compromise comes in many forms, folks.

Why I share this little bit of history with you is because it is absolutely essential, from a consumer perspective, that we change the way we talk about the Affordable Care Act.  We must transition the conversation away from a political frame to, instead, a consumer frame- one that explains to citizens how the law actually works and how healthcare consumers could still lose out if the law is not properly implemented.

It was to fill this glaring need- the need to have a fair broker in Michigan who could explain the law and research its impact in a non-partisan manner and coordinate a consumer response on all implementation related policy matters- for which Michigan Consumers for Healthcare was established.

Led by the tireless efforts of people like Randy Walanias and Jan Hudson, a small group of committed consumer advocates came together to build the MCH Coalition from the ground up.  And with the financial support of visionary private foundations like the Nokomis Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Michigan Consumers for Healthcare was born.  We today celebrate the one year anniversary of the hiring of the Coalition’s first staff person.

How far have we come? In just a single year, Michigan Consumers for Healthcare has grown into one of the largest advocacy communities in the state, now representing over 150 member organizations, collectively touching the lives of over 5 million consumers.  From large, statewide partners like AARP, American Cancer Society and YWCA network to local community groups like Lansing’s own Northwest Neighborhood Initiative and the Greater Lansing African-American Health Institute, we work collaboratively to advance affordable, accessible, quality healthcare for everyone in Michigan through education, outreach and advocacy.

Amongst its many activities, the MCH Coalition provides resources and technical support to partner organizations to engage in public education work.  Philosophically we believe those groups best positioned to educate communities are those groups already established within their respective communities.  That’s why we have provided grants to 30 organizations in the past year to educate and engage their local constituencies on how the ACA actually works and how consumers benefit.

To facilitate our Coalition goals and objectives on the ground, MCH has four regional coordinators in place to advance our education, outreach, research and mobilization efforts.  I will ask each regional coordinator to stand briefly and wave as I introduce them.  In Southeast Michigan we have Steven Hernandez.  Assigned to Western Michigan and the U.P. we have Eli Isaguirre.  Here in Central Michigan we have Brett Williams.  And covering the Saginaw Valley Corridor up through Midland and the Thumb, we have Ryan Sullivan.  You have already met our Outreach Manager Dizzy Warren.  Finally, Wafa Sayed-Dinaro, is our Communications Manager.

With implementation of the ACA here in Michigan already underway when our Coalition was born, circumstances did not allow for a slow ramp up of our activities.  We needed to hit the ground running.

Right out of the gate, Michigan Consumers for Healthcare was faced with many significant policy challenges.  At the urging of the insurance industry, for example, the State requested a federal waiver that would have had the effect of preventing consumers in Michigan from receiving more than $30 million in insurance rebates over the next three years- money that consumers were otherwise entitled to under the ACA.

Michigan Consumers for Healthcare aggressively defended the consumer interest in that policy fight and that controversial waiver request was denied.  As a consequence, businesses AND individual consumers will receive millions in rebates this fall from those insurance providers that fail to reinvest at least 80% of their premium dollar back into the medical care of policyholders, as the new healthcare law mandates.  This is not an insignificant achievement in defense of the healthcare consumer in our state.

The lesson I would hope we learned from that successful effort is that, while there will be many challenges ahead, when consumers are educated and engaged, they are a powerful voice to be reckoned with.  We are blessed than to have with us someone who understands the policy challenges ahead, from a healthcare consumer perspective, better than perhaps anyone in America.

Ron Pollack is the Executive Director of Families USA, the national organization for health care consumers. Families USA’s mission is to achieve high-quality, affordable health coverage for everyone in the U.S.

Mr. Pollack is a frequent guest on a variety of television and radio programs, such as The PBS NewsHour, NBC’s Today show, and ABC’s Good Morning America and quoted in such leading newspapers as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Pollack’s work has been recognized through various honors. The Hill, a weekly newspaper covering Congress, named Mr. Pollack one of the nine top nonprofit lobbyists. Modern Healthcare named Mr. Pollack one of the 100 Most Powerful People in Health Care. National Journal named him one of the top 25 players in Congress, the Administration, and the lobbying community on Medicare prescription drug benefits.

Mr. Pollack is the Founding Board Chairman of Enroll America, an organization composed of very diverse stakeholders working together to secure optimal enrollment of uninsured people through effective implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Prior to his current position at Families USA, Mr. Pollack was the Dean of the Antioch School of Law.

Mr. Pollack was also the Founding Executive Director of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a leading national organization focused on eliminating hunger in the U.S.  Two of his notable accomplishment at FRAC include: (1) arguing two successful cases on the same day in the U.S. Supreme Court to secure food aid for low-income Americans; and (2) the successful federal litigation that resulted in the creation of the WIC program for malnourished mothers and infants.

Mr. Pollack received his law degree from New York University where he was an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Fellow.

Please join me in welcoming to Michigan Mr. Ron Pollack…