On Tuesday morning, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., organized a panel to converse about the importance of the Affordable Care Act and the merits of its expansion via Zoom. The conversation was moderated by Dianne Byrum, director of Protect Our Care in the state of Michigan.

Peters started the conversation by describing his work as a ranking member of the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affair Committee and his work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the federal response to threats against national security like COVID-19. Peters said he believes President Donald Trump’s administration lacked a coordinated national response to COVID-19.

“The president was very slow in even recognizing the extent of the pandemic we are facing as other countries around the world were gearing up to deal with this pandemic,” Peters said. “We lost precious time. That was very clear as I worked with FEMA.”

According to Peters, the effects of being unprepared for COVID-19 included not having enough personal protective equipment gear and inadequate testing supplies in COVID-19 hotspots within Michigan. He emphasized the extent of the damages and the need to fight against the Trump administration’s intention to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Peters pointed to a report published by Families USA which revealed 5.4 million Americans lost their health insurance coverage due to loss of employment.

“To me, healthcare is a right,” Peters said. “It is something we have to be focused on to make sure it is available.”  

Though there was no coordinated national response, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist highlighted how Michigan responded to the crisis by building up their testing capacity on a daily basis, strategizing how to get tests to the most vulnerable communities through innovative mobile testing and leveraging the expanded Medicare Michigan currently offers.

Gilchrist also said the Republican Party’s intention of overturning the Affordable Care Act is unconscionable and noted the difference between their governance and the Democratic Party’s competent, credible and responsible governance.  

“Why would you want to take healthcare away from somebody who already has asthma and if they get COVID-19 it can be even more deadly,” Peters said. “Unfortunately, what we see on display is that one party is about protecting people and giving them access to healthcare so they can be healthy, and the other party is straight up just not.”

Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, said it is essential to support leaders like Peters who advocate for affordable healthcare and other legislation that assists people in need during the pandemic. 

“Should we protect people from getting evicted?” Slavitt said. “Should we protect people from getting furloughed? Should we protect people against unemployment? Should we protect people and make sure they have healthcare? Which of those things should we do? The answer is all of them. Every single one of them.”

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, spoke about protecting the Affordable Care Act due to the potential effect its overturning would have on Medicare. 

“The Affordable Care Act added so many important preventative care measures to the Medicare program,” Richtman said. “Medicare beneficiaries are healthier because of the Affordable Care Act.”

Peters spoke about a report he wrote last year where he highlighted pointed out issues in the U.S. supply chain, specifically in the case of drug shortages and the dependency of the U.S. on foreign sources for critical medical supplies.

“The basic chemicals we use to make nearly all of the drugs that we have in this country — over 80 percent of them come from overseas, nearly all from China,” Peters said. “I concluded in that report, when there is a pandemic, the United States is going to be in some serious trouble. I didn’t know just a few months later (we’d be) in a pandemic.”

Peters also emphasized the need to expand the enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. Currently, people can enroll at the end of each year. According to Peters, in this pandemic, anyone should be able to access health coverage under the Affordable Care Act even if they hadn’t enrolled at the end of last year. 

“We are in the middle of a pandemic where people are frightened,” Peters said. “People need to have the peace of mind (and) not worry about healthcare, not worry that if they are taken to the hospital with COVID-19 and (they) fight and struggle and if they get out they’re certainly pleased they survived but have monstrous bills to pay. That’s not what should be happening in this country.”

Gilchrist said Michigan became the second state to require implicit bias training for all licensed medical professionals to decrease the racial disparity in access to health care after the recommendation from Michigan’s Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Disparities.

“Medical providers were put in this impossible situation … because (Michigan) didn’t have enough tests, people coming to doctors and begging to get themselves or their loved ones tested were turned away,” Gilchrist said. “There were people of color who were turned away, which raises the question of whether there was any implicit medical bias present.”

Richtman said though seniors are at heightened risk for mortality due to COVID-19, nursing homes are still in dire need of personal protective equipment and medical equipment. 

“It’s really unconscionable to see so many of these residents in nursing homes perish,” Richtman said. “It is something that should have never happened and it is something that can be fixed going forward.”

The conversation came to an end with Peters re-emphasizing the stakes of overturning the Affordable Care Act and the need to not only keep it, but expand it.

“The central focus of the Affordable Care Act was to make sure that everybody, no matter who they were and where they live, would have access to quality affordable healthcare,” Peters said. “If the affordable care act does go away, folks are going to be back to where they were before, without coverage that they desperately need.”

Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at itznavya@umich.edu.

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