Senate Democrats talk about child care, partisanship and mental health inpatient access

Three key democratic senators spoke at our 2021 Michigan State of Reform Health Policy Conference to discuss the politics of a divided legislature on health policy, affordable child care for working parents and crisis beds for mental health cases. 


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Sen. Jeff Irwin, member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Community Health/Human Services, Sen. Winnie Brinks, minority vice chair of the Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee, and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., minority vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, offered their insights on the panel. 

The panelists all highlighted their focus on creating more inpatient mental health beds for children and adults. According to Hertel Jr., the lack of psychiatric beds in Michigan leads to people waiting for proper care in an unfitting environment, like the general hospital. This causes them to stay even longer in the psychiatric inpatient setting. Hertel Jr. said: 

“This is a cyclical problem that we need to solve. One of the ways we can solve it is to provide more places for these young people to go. It costs money and it is an expensive process, but this is an opportunity we have to make those investments.”

Irwin said the creation of these beds is expensive and time consuming. However, he says there is an opportunity to use the funds given by the federal government in the American Rescue Plan Act. These funds could be used on the Michigan Psychiatric Care Improvement Project which hopes to expand the number of beds, create new psychiatric centers and collect data on the causes of denials of inpatient services. 

The panelists also discussed lowering child care costs to allow working parents to return to work. According to Irwin, it is difficult to find quality and affordable child care in Michigan which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Irwin said that both workers and child care professionals have lower wages which cannot support child care fees. This causes workers to continue to receive unemployment to avoid paying for child care. Quality of care also drops due to lack of incentives for child care professionals. 

“It’s very difficult to get people to do difficult intimate work caring for these precious little kids when they don’t make a living wage doing it. It is really difficult for these child care workers to justify their experiences when they receive poverty level wages.”

In March 2021, Gov. Whitmer launched the MI Tri-Share Child Care Pilot Program which aims to increase access to high quality care at an affordable rate for working families. The cost of care will be divided between the worker, their employer and the State of Michigan to assist the increased cost of child care. It will initially operate in three regional facilitator hubs. 

The panelists also highlighted the pandemic’s impact on civilian engagement and a divided legislature. According to Brinks, engagement from constituents is harder because they cannot testify in person. It is challenging for legislators to engage with the public and hear their stories through numerous emails.

“Combing through some of the feedback in emails that are coming into our inbox has become more of a challenge and that makes it difficult for individuals who want to tell their personal story or talk about the impact a particular bill would have or could have had on their lives.”

Within the legislature, partisanship has continued to be a challenge. According to the panelists, this was a problem even before the 2020 presidential election and was exacerbated by the election fraud claims. 

Brinks says the Health Policy and Human Services Committee has seen some bipartisan cooperation and opportunities to work across the aisle.