Legalized Pot Goes To Ballot, House Opts Not To Vote
Not only did the House Republican caucus not have the votes to legislatively adopt and amend a citizen initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana, House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) said June 5 he’s not convinced the state Senate really did either.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), presented with polling showing recreational marijuana passing this fall, said he had 20 votes in the Senate to pass the marijuana legalization citizens initiative.
Had the House passed it June 5, the last day of the 40-day constitutional deadline, Meekhof pledged he would have, too, giving Republican lawmakers an easier shot at amending the proposal to better regulate “home-brew” marijuana businesses, potency restriction and possession amounts.
But the House didn’t have the votes. Inside sources project the chamber had about 40 and likely weren’t going to get any more. Democrats had presented a united front against the proposal and hardline conservatives philosophically opposed legalizing pot.
And Leonard questioned whether the Senate had the 20 votes to pass it anyway, despite Meekhof’s claims.
“I have to believe that if they had the votes to pass this, if they were serious, that they would have taken the vote. And they have yet to take a vote,” Leonard said. “. . . It is hard for me to believe that any leader who was serious about getting this passed, excuse me, adopting and amending this, when they never presented members with an amended version or showed us what that would look like.”
Meekhof spokesperson Amber McCann responded to the comment with, “If Speaker Leonard wasn’t such a fan of putting something on the board to fail, the Majority Leader would have felt more comfortable putting up a vote on marijuana that depended on passage in the House.”
McCann is referencing Leonard’s decision earlier this term to take a vote on an income tax rollback and auto insurance reforms without the needed votes to pass.
At least one House Democrat suggested June 4 that if Republicans had agreed to not to vote to approve the prevailing wage repeal initiative, he would be open to talking about legalizing marijuana.
But House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) said nobody approached him about dealing. Even if they did, he said he suspects his asking price would have been deemed “untenable” by his Republican colleagues. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), likewise, said nobody talked with him, but he wasn’t under the impression Republicans were interested in dealing away prevailing wage.
“I did not have any direct conversations,” Singh said. “Did some of my members have any conversations? That’s possible, but I think if there were serious, conversations somebody would come to me at a point in time. But they never did.
“I think it was always a conversation about trying to shape this in a way to help a small number of Republican donors run this industry,” Singh added. “I think that’s unethical and they knew they weren’t going to get Democrats.”
With no vote June 5 in the House or Senate to legislatively adopt the initiative put forward in a petition drive by Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), the question now heads to the ballot. That means voters will get to decide in November whether to make pot legal here in Michigan.
That’s good news to some.
“We represent nine million people in this state and it shouldn’t be left to 110 legislators in the House of Reps and Senators,” said Rep. Robert Kosowski (D-Westland). “It should go to a vote of the people. That’s who we work for . . . It’s their voice. It’s their decision. Some people are telling me they want it. Other people are telling me they don’t. How can I represent my district if it is on both sides of this issue?”
Leonard is not pleased with the prospects of legalization going on the ballot and he said he will be encouraging people to vote against it.
“I’ve seen the problems that marijuana can cause,” Leonard said. “We have spoken to insurance companies who have been pretty clear that auto insurance rates as well as home rates are going to go up in the event that this passes. When I look at the fact that we are likely going to have more operating under the influence arrests, situations where people are being killed by those that are under the influence of marijuana, this is not a good thing for our state.”
He said that once voters are educated about the issue, it could be defeated at the ballot box in November.
CRMLA said that while it would have been happy to see its proposal adopted legislatively, it is confident voters “understand that marijuana prohibition has been an absolute disaster and that they will agree that taxing and regulating marijuana is a far better solution,” said CRMLA spokesperson Josh Hovey.
He said in a statement that the organization’s goal now will be informing voters about what is in the proposal.
“Multiple polls show that roughly 60 percent of Michigan voters want to see marijuana legalized and regulated but, as we saw with the legislative debates these past few weeks, there is still a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “The fact is that our proposal is carefully written to be a model for responsible cannabis regulation and closely follows the medical marijuana licensing law passed by the state legislature in 2016.”
Since the deadline was June 5 for lawmakers to act, the deal was sealed when the House adjourned without acting. Republicans met for a short caucus before Leonard came out to announce to reporters there would be no vote.
The House was always the challenge for legislative adoption, with Leonard consistently being against the measure and publicly questioning whether there were not enough votes in the Republican caucus to adopt the initiative. Also, House Democrats were leery of taking action, consistently wanting the citizens to vote on the measure.
The Senate had stayed in recess through the afternoon in case House Speaker Pro Tem Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), the point person in the House, was able to put the votes together.
Much of the argument in favor of adopting the initiative legislatively was that it could be amended with a simple majority vote with regulations that exactly mirror those of medical marijuana. If the people adopt it, the Legislature could only adopt it with a three-quarters majority.
Judge Grants Preliminary Approval In Hep C Case
A federal judge gave class-action status to a lawsuit and preliminary approval to a settlement that calls for Michigan to begin providing Hepatitis C direct-acting antiviral medications to more Medicaid patients.
U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood’s decision May 29 in the lawsuit, M.R. v. Nick Lyon, came after both sides submitted a joint motion requesting class-action status and the proposed settlement.
The court’s order identifies the class as any Medicaid recipient 18 and older diagnosed with Hepatitis C virus that can receive the anti-viral treatment. Dickinson Wright was the appointed class counsel.
Notices will be sent to class members, who have until July 17 to file a written response or request to testify at an Aug. 8 fairness hearing, which is a procedure to consider final approval of a settlement.
If no objections are received from a class member, the settlement agreement would go into full effect Oct. 1.
The lawsuit, filed April 14, 2017, alleges the Department of Health and Human Services’ current prior-authorization criteria for Hepatitis C treatment violates three provisions of the Medical Assistant Program, Title XIX of the Social Security Act, excluding qualified Medicaid recipients from medically necessary treatment.
According to court records, DHHS continues to deny the claims alleged, maintaining it has strong defenses. However, the state concluded it would be “desirable and beneficial” to settle the case, court documents noted.
Health Insurance Tax Cut Shoots Through Panel, Senate
PPOs and their roughly 1.2 million customers would see an accumulative $18 million state tax cut under legislation that’s connected with the Health Insurance Claims Assessment (HICA) repeal bills that moved May 17. The bill creating the cut shot through a Senate committee after a seven-minute hearing and the full Senate May 23 hours later.
Sen. Jim Stamas’s (R-Midland) SB 1016 encompasses a deal made with industry, particularly Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and state officials, which more than offsets a rate increase non-Medicaid PPO customers were facing under the Insurance Provider Assessment (IPA) tax scheme create.
“We believe the combined claims tax elimination and premium tax reduction is an effective way to ensure that small businesses who offer PPO coverage see relief on the cost of health care, as approximately 70 percent of our small business customers choose PPO coverage,” said BCBSM Corporate Affairs Director Helen Stojic.
Budget Director John Walsh appeared with Stamas in front of the Senate Michigan Competitiveness Committee May 23 to show his support of the work the Legislature is doing on the subject, said spokesman Kurt Weiss.
“We still have some work to do when it comes to finding a long-term revenue solution for health care,” Weiss said. The administration’s support is critical since Gov. Rick Snyder historically has been resistant to poking holes in the state revenue stream without finding a way to pay for it.
The bill does not impact HMOs, something Dominick Pallone of the Michigan Association of Health Plans said he’d like to see addressed. The double taxation issue solved by SB 1016 is $400,000, meaning much of the $18 million benefit is welcomed tax relief.
“This creates a competitive change in the tax structure that impacts one side of our commercial insurers, which is something we’d like to see addressed,” Pallone said.
The bill lowers the current 1.25 percent premiums tax on commercial licenses to .95 percent in 2019. HMOs pay taxes based on the Corporate Income Tax (CIT) and not the premiums tax, so any relief involving those plans would need to be addressed in another section of state law.
Stamas said it is the intent of the legislature for PPOs to pass these savings on to businesses and individuals, although he conceded the legislation doesn’t specifically mandate it. Stojic said as nonprofit mutual insurers, any cost savings for Blue Cross PPO product is passed on to customers.
According to 2015 data, 57 percent of Michigan commercial insurance market is made up of self-insured plans that insure 3.2 million Michiganders. Another 27 percent is made up of large groups, 8 percent small groups and 7 percent individual plans. It is the three latter categories that take advantage of Preferred Provider Organizations or PPOs or HMOs, both of which have roughly 1.2 million covered customers apiece, according to Delany McKinely of the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
SB 1016 moved unanimously out of committee and 36-0 on the Senate floor after Republican leadership agreed to amend the rules for the bill’s hasty passage to the House. In related news, the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee May 23 reported out the IRA package—SB 0992, SB 0993 and SB 0994—unamended.
Folks Can’t Skirt Medicaid Costs With Spouse’s Money
A court can’t allow someone to receive all of their spouse’s income if Medicaid is paying the costs to institutionalize the spouse and there are some patient-pay obligations, the Court of Appeals ruled May 23.
In a published opinion May 22, the court said probate judges in St. Clair and Eaton counties could grant a monthly income to the non-institutionalized or “community” spouses of Joseph Vansach Jr. and Jerome R. Bockes, respectively.
However, the local courts don’t have “unfettered discretion” to gives an allowance that lets the spouse maintain his or her current lifestyle without regard to what it costs to keep the other spouse institutionalized, the three-judge panel ruled unanimously.
To do otherwise, the court’s panel found, is an abuse of discretion. In the Vansach and Bockes cases, the trial courts granted the community spouses 100 percent of their husband’s income.
Vansach and Bockes receive Medicaid benefits to cover a portion of their health care. Their spouses successfully sought a protective order under the law, claiming they lacked sufficient income to meet their needs.
DHHS opposed the petitions, asserting the wives sought a larger community spouse income allowance than allowed, which “would have the effect of decreasing the patient-pay amount” that their spouses contribute to their care.
According to Medicaid.gov, nursing home care, which ranges from $5,000 per month to $8,000 or more per month, can rapidly deplete savings accounts. In 1988, Congress enacted what is called “spousal impoverishment” provisions to prevent the spouse who still lives in the community from having little or no income or resources.
The appeals panel included Judges Peter D. O’Connell, Joel P. Hoekstra and Kirsten Frank Kelly.
State Leaders Press Feds On PFAS Risk
PFAS contamination of water supplies is on the minds of a growing number of Michigan elected officials and they are pushing the federal government to take more action on addressing the emerging contaminants.
Specifically, there’s a push for President Donald Trump’s administration to release a report that reportedly shows PFAS can affect human health at a lower level than previously thought, according to coverage provided by Politico, The Washington Post and others.
An agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was preparing to release this report, but emails revealed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House were concerned about the public reaction to such a report.
That got some stern reactions from U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Delta Twp.) and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Twp.).
“Under Scott Pruitt’s EPA, there’s lots of talk, but little action,” Kildee said in a release. “Time and time again, Administrator Pruitt has claimed he is working to address harmful contaminants in drinking water like PFAS or lead, but his EPA continues to kick the can down the road on taking any real action to protect American families. It’s long past time for the Trump Administration to get serious about updating outdated drinking water and cleanup standards to protect public health.”
Kildee started circulating an email petition to urge disclosure of the study, while Stabenow unleashed a fundraising email on the topic, which said in part, “Scott Pruitt’s EPA and Trump Administration officials purposefully hid a report on the dangers of PFAS chemicals from the public.” She called for Pruitt’s resignation.
The unreleased report also caught the attention of Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), considering the PFAS concerns tied to Wolverine’s operations in west Michigan are close by.
She offered a resolution May 22 calling on the federal government to release it.
“Science should never be held hostage by special interest groups or by the politicians who are catering to them,” Brinks said in a statement. “Everyone in Michigan deserves to live free from the fear that our air and water is making them sick, but that won’t happen if scientific research is prevented from reaching the public.”
While those agitating haven’t gotten a report, they did get Pruitt and the EPA, hosting a “national leadership summit” in Washington, D.C., on the topic late in May.
It was there that the state’s PFAS Action Response Team set up by Gov. Rick Snyder called on federal officials to move forward with additional research and rulemaking on the contaminants, according to a press release issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“Today, we’re calling on EPA to move forward with additional research and rulemaking on PFAS, so we have sound science and clear regulations from which to continue our mission of protecting people and the environment from this emerging contaminant,” said DEQ Director Heidi Grether.
And the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, citing “continued inaction” at the federal level, implored state and local officials to “protect the 14 communities across Michigan grappling with PFAS contamination.”