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Experts say Michigan's "bipartisan success" on no-fault reform is really a "bipartisan failure," as people lose care

Catastrophically injured auto accident survivors at the state Capitol, asking legislators to fix no fault law that's depriving them of care
Emma Winowieki
Michigan Radio
Catastrophically injured auto accident survivors at the state Capitol, asking legislators to fix the auto insurance law that's depriving them of care

When Michigan lawmakers, the mayor of Detroit, and the governor of the state gathered on Mackinac Island on May 30, 2019 to celebrate her signing the just-passed no fault insurance reform bill into law, the mood was almost giddy. It sometimes sounded like a family reunion, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer praised the fully bipartisan effort to make sweeping changes to Michigan’s auto insurance system.

"When we see one another as people, as Michiganders, we can focus on getting things done," Whitmer said. "When I know that (Senate Majority Leader) Mike Shirkey hustles home to have dinner with Sue in Jackson every night, or (then-House Speaker) Lee Chatfield and his beautiful family.... When we see one another as Michiganders first we are capable of great things, and it doesn't stop today."

It was truly a remarkable event. After all, Republican-majority legislatures, under Republican governors, had tried and failed to do the same thing for more than two decades. And now Democrats were joining hands with Republicans to do what those previous administrations could not.

At the time, Michigan had the highest premiums in the nation, and Detroit, the highest premiums of any city in the nation. There are several reasons for that, but the state’s lifetime medical coverage for catastrophic accidents got all the blame.

The new law would let people choose less coverage, which might lower their premiums.

But even as she praised the rosy future of bipartisanship she envisioned, Whitmer paid lip service to warning signs in the bill she was about to sign.

"It’s not perfect, as the majority leader said, but this is a big step forward and we're gonna continue that walk."

Both sides made assurances they’d fix the law as needed later. But Republican leaders in the House and Senate have reneged on those assurances.

Now, catastrophically injured Michiganders — who likely number in the thousands, advocates say — are losing care because the law lets insurance companies pay their long-term care providers less than the cost of providing the care, and the providers are going out of business.

In some cases, there’s been nowhere else for desperate survivors to go but the hospital.

State Senator Mallory McMorrow meets with auto accident survivors at Capitol building rally
Emma Winowieki
State Senator Mallory McMorrow meets with auto accident survivors at Capitol building rally

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) says it’s breaking her heart, as every week, families and caregivers push catastrophically injured survivors in their wheelchairs through the hallways of the state Capitol building, pleading for help.

"We’ve had legislation (introduced) to fix it," she said. "It hasn’t been taken up, and it is going to do harm — it is doing horrific damage to people who are vulnerable."

McMorrow voted "no" on the no-fault bill, even though a majority of her fellow Democrats voted yes. She said the process was rushed and sloppy and one-sided from the beginning.

Far-reaching changes to multiple statutes of no-fault law were crammed into one bill. At one hearing, she was only allowed to ask one of the 28 questions she had about the bill. And as for who was allowed to testify before the Senate Insurance and Banking Committee?

"All of the hearings featured insurance companies," McMorrow said, "and we didn’t hear from families or any of those impacted."

She said earlier drafts of the bill did not have a retroactive clause, which would allow insurance companies to cut payments for care for people catastrophically injured prior to 2019.

The final bill did.

Steve Sinas is an personal injury attorney at Sinas Dramis Law Firm who handles no-fault cases. He was at the Capitol the day of the special session for the vote. He said legislators were shown the final bill about an hour before the vote. It was 120 pages long.

"So many legislators have told me, they had no time to read it," said Sinas.

"They were told to vote for it, and just be OK with it. I don’t think anybody should be OK with bills that are passed without being read by the people passing them."
Steve Sinas, personal injury lawyer at Sinas Dramus Law Firm

Sinas said the law was initially praised as a bipartisan success. But he’s heard people subsequently describe it as a bipartisan failure. He said there were other bills that could have addressed the issue of too-high premiums, without depriving accident survivors of necessary medical care, but Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) refused to hold hearings on the bills.

Governor Whitmer has since asked the state Legislature to fix the law. But Wayne State University Law Professor Wayne Miller, an expert on no-fault, said Whitmer never should have signed it in the first place because she knew — or should have known — that it would have a devastating effect on auto accident patients.

He said he and other no-fault experts were called to the governor’s office a day before the vote happened.

"We thought we were being called in for an emergency conference, like, 'We’re close to a deal, we want your input and we want you to look at what we’ve drafted.' It was nothing like that," he said. "It was a done deal."

Instead of a meeting with the governor’s top negotiator, a staff member handed them a copy of the final bill.

Bluntly put, everyone flipped out when they saw what was in it.

"We said, 'Oh my God,'" Miller recalled, because they could immediately see that the bill would destroy Michigan’s entire system of care for catastrophic car accident survivors — not just previous survivors, but all those going forward.

Miller said they urged the governor’s aides not to let her sign the bill. They tried to get Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to slow down.

"But these legislators were too f---ing stupid or unconcerned to let this snowball that was going down the hill be reviewed by people that knew what they were talking about," he said.

Two years later, the hope of a lasting bipartisan spirit from the passage of the new law has faded. Detroit’s auto insurance premiums are still the highest of any city in the nation, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Sen. McMorrow said while the governor has asked for a fix, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Senate Insurance and Banking Committee Chairwoman Lana Theis won’t agree.

She said some of her Democratic colleagues were promised hearings on bills they cared about, if they voted "yes" on the no-fault reform bill. She said they never got those hearings. Shirkey and Theis’s assurances that there would be opportunities to fix the hastily drafted law later proved equally hollow.

"I think the reality is, they don't care," McMorrow said. "And that is something that is very hard for me to grapple with. And there is a comfort level with just lying."

Attorney Steve Sinas said his greatest fear is what could happen with the passage of time. Because it's so easy and so normal for people to go about their lives and forget the stories they're hearing about how the new law is leaving auto accident survivors stranded without care.

"Then we forget what happened in 2019 with these laws, and we just accept them," said Sinas. "Oh, we've got to move forward. This is the new system. And we don’t stop and think, did we really help people? And if we remember all the stories that are coming out, the answer is just going to be so unequivocally clear that we hurt more people than we helped with these laws."

We asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Sen. Shirkey, Sen. Theis and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan for interviews for this story. Their offices did not respond.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.