Jan 14, 2008

Petition drive to guarantee Michigan health care gets off the ground

Beginning with the presidential primary Tuesday and continuing through the summer, people can expect to see an army armed with blue petition forms seeking signatures to give Michigan residents affordable health care.

Health Care for Michigan is a coalition of labor, religious and activist groups that wants to amend the state constitution to require the Legislature to pass laws to ensure that "every Michigan resident has affordable and comprehensive health care coverage through a fair and cost-effective financing system."

Constitutional amendments require the valid signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for governor in the last election. That comes out to 380,126 signatures that must be collected by July 7 to put the measure on the November general election ballot.

The groups have already started collecting signatures, and they have 90 days between when the first and last signatures are gathered to turn the petitions in to the Secretary of State. To ensure the group has enough signatures that can withstand challenge, the coalition hopes to get 425,000 signatures. The group held press conferences across the state last week to help create a buzz, and members are busy training people to circulate petitions and to act as representatives for the drive.

“We are certainly creating a lot of excitement across the state,” said Valerie Przywara, a field organizer with Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network, a statewide network that promotes comprehensive health care.

John Freeman, chairman of the of the ballot committee, said political leaders in Washington and Lansing have failed to deal with a broken health care system. The constitutional amendment, he said, would require that state leaders craft a "Health Care Security Plan" that ensures that people who currently have health insurance won’t lose it, provides health insurance coverage for those without it and controls and reduces health costs.

“Far too many people are one serious accident or a pink slip away from bankruptcy and losing their health care, and that’s wrong,” Freeman said last week. “No one that works hard and plays by the rules should have their families or business cast into financial ruin because they don’t have access to affordable health care.”

The petition drive has picked many supporters, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Also supporting the drive are more than two dozen organizations, including the Service Employees International Union, AARP Michigan, Michigan Unitarian Universal Social Justice Network, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), Michigan Disability Rights Coalition and the Michigan Osteopathic Association.

U.S. manufacturers, especially automakers, are finding it hard to compete globally because of the high cost of supplying health care to employees and retirees. Foreign governments are helping foreign auto companies compete by providing health care for employees to make their cars cheaper and U.S. cars more expensive. There are also an estimated 750,000 to 1 million Michigan residents with no health care at all.

The main opposition is coming from business groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which say they are concerned with the cost of providing government health care.

“We are, of course, preparing for opposition, but we really don’t see any major opposition,” Przywara said. “We believe the petition drive supports both a private and public solution to a major problem.”

Every election season Michigan residents are bombarded with petition drives, and this year voters may see petition drives aimed at allowing use of medical marijuana, allowing anyone 18 and older to use cannabis on private property, calling for a part-time Legislature, make Michigan a so-called Right to Work state and even a measure to put every tax increase on the ballot. Many critics say it is far too easy to get something on the ballot, and it takes away the concept of representative government in favor of mob rule. They also say any legislator can introduce a bill for universal health care at any time. But proponents say the petition drive, if successful, would give the Legislature the ability to craft its own health proposal.

“The constitution is the highest authority,” Przywara said. “We are simply telling the Legislature what we want with this petition drive, and we will hold them accountable.”

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