Health chief will follow Medicaid work rules, won’t pursue single-payer

Department of Health and Human Services | Susan J. Demas

Robert Gordon, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pick to head the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is concerned that tens or hundreds of thousands of people could lose coverage under a new Medicaid work requirement law.

Robert Gordon

That’s something that Whitmer raised in her State of the State address last week. Despite those concerns, however, Gordon’s department is implementing the law signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder as written.

“I have a duty to uphold federal and state laws,” Gordon told senators last week during the opening remarks of his first Advice and Consent Committee hearing. “The work requirements are in statute that I am bound to follow and I will enforce them.”

Republican legislators last year voted to amend the state’s “Healthy Michigan” Medicaid program to mandate that “able-bodied adults” between the ages of 19 and 62 provide proof of employment to maintain subsidized coverage.

The federal government approved the change by granting a waiver. Whitmer has accepted the waiver, but notified the feds that she wants to work with the Legislature to amend the new work requirements.

Gordon pointed to a report earlier this month by Manatt Health, a health care consulting and law firm, which found that almost 200,000 Michiganders could lose coverage under the law. Manatt’s findings were largely based on numbers out of Arkansas, which recently implemented a similar law.

“I would like nothing more than to prove wrong the coverage loss estimates that Manatt Health put out,” Gordon said.

A former cabinet member in the President Obama Administration who helped with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Gordon was appointed by Whitmer to lead Michigan’s largest department in her second week in office, as the Advance reported.

DHHS’ roughly $25 billion budget accounts for nearly half of the state’s general fund and employs about 15,000 people. The department is responsible for everything from administering Medicaid to social services like adoption and foster care, as well as other elements of the social safety net.

“I see it as my job to get smart quick,” Gordon said of the vast responsibilities he holds, having just celebrated his 30th day on the job.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has previously touted the work requirements law as a key accomplishment in previous interviews with the Advance, saying that: “It’s a bridge; it’s a gap; it’s a help to get from here to there.”

Mike Shirkey

In her State of the State speech, however, the governor said she intends “to work with the Legislature to find ways that both promote work and preserve coverage for people who need it.”

Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said he’s open to discussions with Whitmer, but “is concerned that the governor is already poised to admit failure before the program has an opportunity to succeed.”

No single-payer

During the almost two-hour hearing last week — which adjourned before all senators had a chance to ask their questions — Gordon also fielded calls on myriad other topics that fall under the purview of DHHS.

Among those were the ongoing lawsuit against the state — which Attorney General Dana Nessel has moved to settle — which allows faith-based groups to deny adoption to same-sex couples.

Asked by state Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) to weigh in on the topic, Gordon called it a “difficult issue,” but noted that his job as DHHS director is to ensure children receive proper care, not to “adjudicate” on issues like religious freedom and civil rights.

“I think the core question I’ve focused on is in any scenario is will we be ready to meet the needs of the kids we have to serve,” Gordon said. “I do believe the answer to that question is ‘yes.’”

Abdul El-Sayed | Susan J. Demas

The concept of a single-payer health care system also came up. The topic was something of a lighting rod during last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed ran — ultimately unsuccessfully — on the idea of implementing a single-payer system in Michigan.

Whitmer said she supported the idea of universal coverage, but didn’t commit to moving Michigan to a single-payer system like “Medicare for All.” During the general election, the Republican Governors Association ran an ad attacking Whitmer for supporting it anyway.

At the hearing, Gordon was pushed by Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) — over the objections of Democrats on the committee who deemed the questions irrelevant — to offer his thoughts on universal, single-payer health care.

“I have no interest in it and will do nothing to try and bring a single-payer system to Michigan,” Gordon said, appearing somewhat surprised he was even being asked his views on the matter.

Nonetheless, he entertained Nesbitt’s question.

“I hadn’t thought about answering that today because I have no intention of doing anything to advance single-payer,” he added. “I think it’s a complicated question. I think there’s opportunities to generate administrative savings from single-payer. On the other hand, it would involve a vast amount of tumult and change for people and there’d be a lot of risk around it.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing new environmental executive orders, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

A state-based universal health care system would almost certainly require legislative approval, which would be unlikely in Michigan’s Republican-controlled chambers.

Gordon, a New York City native who’s spent more than two decades working in various public and private sector positions in Washington, D.C., was also asked why he’d want the job of running such a massive department like DHHS.

Gordon, who told senators that he’s been commuting between Lansing and Washington, D.C., at his own expense until his family moves later this year, said he believes helming the department fits in with his career of fact-based service and outcomes. Moving to Michigan, he said, makes for a natural step.

“At a personal level, I’ll just tell you … I think of myself as a deeply curious person and a very patriotic person,” Gordon said. “[My family has] traveled a lot in the U.S. I do not think that the east coast — or the Acela Corridor — has all the answers.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here