Michigan state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, held a virtual town hall on Facebook Live Saturday morning to discuss the state’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. About 60 viewers tuned in as Rabhi covered issues such as health care access, unemployment benefits and K-12 school closures. 

Rabhi noted he and his team do not have any more information than the public, as they are learning details at the same rate as everyone else. 

“The governor’s office continues to issue executive orders, which are obviously very important for our public health,” Rabhi said. “And we are trying to work through what each of those means, one at a time.” 

Rabhi said he believes the coronavirus pandemic shows the necessity of universal health care coverage through a single-payer health care system, noting that some people lack access to a primary care doctor and essential services.

“These work requirements are unconscionable, they create a situation where Medicaid is being used basically as a work program, instead of a health care program,” Rabhi said. “And these actions will have the potential of causing hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals to be kicked off of their Medicaid insurance.” 

Rabhi said he appreciated individuals who are still working in-person to provide essential services, such as grocery store workers and delivery drivers.

“To be frank, a gap we have in our society is how these people are not valued, I mean look at their salaries and how much they make,” Rabhi said. “Line cooks, folks who work in grocery stores, delivery drivers and restaurant workers need to be paid more, which is why we need to increase the minimum wage in the state of Michigan and nationwide to $15 an hour.” 

Rabhi also highlighted the need to forgive the days and hour requirements for school districts, as the governor has ordered the closure of all K-12 schools. If not forgiven, schools will be required to make up those hours in the summer.

At the end of the event, Rabhi turned to the comments section to answer questions from the viewers. Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert asked whether Rabhi would look into unhygienic and overcrowded conditions at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, which have allegedly led to issues with the women’s physical and mental health.

Rabhi said he had previously met with the Department of Corrections ombudsman. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Rabhi said he had received multiple complaints about the public health conditions in the women’s prison. According to Rabhi, his team has been investigating the issue and is planning a trip down to the facility when conditions allow for it. 

Local resident Clara Silver asked whether there would be any way to encourage people to stop panic buying. Silver wrote that she hasn’t seen any paper products on grocery store shelves in weeks, noting the inconvenience of driving to multiple stores to check for these items.

Rabhi replied that he has been trying to remind people not to panic.

“I don’t know if there will be a time when grocery stores will be closed, but I think it’s important to encourage grocers to be a part of the solution and ask them to limit items per customer,” Rabhi said.

Local resident Matt Winick asked whether the stay at home order closes mental health services for people who struggle with mental illness. While these issues are currently unresolved, Rabhi said there is at least one Medicaid provider, WellCare Health Plans, who provides services online for mental health, though the state has not been reimbursing them for the services they are offering.

He criticized a Republican resolution that was introduced and passed on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives earlier in March that could impose work requirements on some Medicaid beneficiaries while capping federal funds spent on the program.

While the specific policies vary by each state, most require 20 hours per week, or 80 hours per month, to receive Medicaid benefits. In Michigan, activities such as going to school, looking for a job, receiving job training, getting treated for drug addictions, volunteering at a nonprofit organization or doing unpaid job-related work satisfy the requirements.

Rabhi acknowledged that the processing of unemployment benefits may be delayed due to an influx of applications.

“While fortunately the governor has expanded unemployment benefits, the issue now is that there are so many people applying for unemployment that the computer system is not able to handle the massive volume,” Rabhi said. “I would encourage people to keep trying and to not give up if you are eligible for unemployment, as I heard people eventually will get through the website.” 

Daily Contributor Cheryn Hong can be reached at cherynh@umich.edu

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