Keynote: A conversation with Elizabeth Hertel

At the 2021 Michigan State of Reform Health Policy Conference, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), discussed recent achievements and initiatives addressing the social determinants of health during the pandemic, lowering the infant and maternal mortality rates and extending school lunch benefits to students learning at home. 


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Hertel highlighted MDHHS’s commitment to addressing gaps in access due to institutional racism and lack of health care funding in underserved communities. Their focus turned toward decreasing disparities of COVID-19 vaccinations and tests during the pandemic. MDHHS made vaccinations simple by funding pop-up vaccination sites and facilitating vaccinations at community based health clinics. 

According to Hertel, these initiatives materialized under the direction of a new department within MDHHS called the Office of Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. 

“[This department] looks not only at this current health crisis, but opportunities to address health equity, inequity, diversity and inclusion, in broader ways externally and internally as a department.”

Hertel also discussed achievements in maternal and infant mortality rates. At the end of April, MDHHS announced Michigan had the lowest recorded infant mortality rates in the state’s history and had a measurable difference in disparities of maternal care and infant deaths in 2019. 

Rates lowered due to the implementation of strategies in the MDHHS 2023 Mother Infant Health & Equity Improvement Plan. The plan attempts to eliminate preventable deaths in hospitals and at the home through outreach and training. 

“This is such a monumental achievement and something we have been working towards for so long. To see any movement in those rates in the direction we were hoping is so positive and reaffirming of the work we have all been doing here.”

During the pandemic, student food assistance programs shutdown due to in-person learning. Hertzel highlighted that Michigan was one of the first states to deliver emergency allotment food assistance, which allowed households to receive the maximum allowed food assistance funded by the federal government. 

Michigan became the first state to issue electronic benefits transfer (EBT) benefits to 900,000 children eligible for free or reduced lunch during the pandemic. EBT benefits allowed students and their families to purchase food online through Amazon and Walmart to continue safe COVID-19 distancing. 

“It was so important to make sure that these kids still had access to the nutrition that they needed even though they were not able to be in their normal environment where they were receiving those benefits.”

Hertel and MDHHS plan to continue these extended benefits throughout the public health emergency with focus on keeping students and families fed.