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Michigan House GOP unveils $1.2B plan for COVID tests, monoclonal antibodies

Michigan House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert is proposing a $1.2 billion spending plan that would use federal dollars to boost the state’s response to COVID-19. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Michigan House Republicans are unveiling a $1.2 billion spending plan to boost the state’s COVID-19 response by creating early treatment and prevention sites, addressing workforce shortages and increasing testing kits.

While details have not yet been negotiated with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the debate will likely stretch into early 2022, “we’re really proud of” the plan, House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert told Bridge Michigan ahead of a Wednesday morning hearing.

“It will help keep Michiganders healthy and safe, so I’m looking forward to continue moving this through the process,” said Albert, R-Lowell. 

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Michigan is flush with $8 billion in federal aid, along with a roughly $2.4 billion state budget surplus. But officials have been slow to spend the money amid gridlock between the Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature. 

With COVID again surging in Michigan, the Whitmer administration last month renewed its request for the Legislature to spend $2.5 billion in federal funds on several initiatives, including roughly $800 million for COVID-19 relief.

Thomas has urged a "methodical" approach to the spending, but with just five session days left in the calendar year, he told Bridge the new House GOP plan includes Whitmer’s most pressing request: $300 million to support testing at K-12 schools.

“We want to make sure that we have enough tests to make sure kids can stay in the classroom,” Thomas said. “A lot of schools are using tests right now to help reduce the amount of time kids are in quarantine.”

Beyond school testing funds requested by Whitmer, the House GOP plan also includes new and novel proposals not yet negotiated with the governor, including a $300 million grant program to address staffing shortages that have left health providers stretched thin. Overall, 32 of Michigan’s 164 hospitals now have critical staff shortages, according to state records.

The Republican proposal, all paid for with federal dollars, would allow medical providers to design their own employee recruitment and retention programs when applying for funding, according to Albert. He said the House does not want to impose “one prescriptive grant” program on all hospitals or other facilities.

Albert has personally advocated for more resources for early prevention and treatment efforts, including monoclonal antibodies the Whitmer administration has also supported as an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, particularly among those who are not vaccinated. 

The GOP plan proposes a new approach: $109 million to create eight separate testing and treatment sites across Michigan, along with $25 million for the state to try to buy monoclonal antibodies directly from manufacturers.

Federal restrictions could complicate direct sales from some manufacturers, but states like Florida have found avenues to purchase their own supply of monoclonal antibodies rather than rely strictly on federal allocations, Albert said. 

The House plan includes another $117 million for testing at those eight new sites, where House Republicans envision that a person who tests positive for COVID-19 or is otherwise vulnerable could “go over and get the monoclonals right then” for treatment or prevention, Albert said. 

The House plan also includes $150 million to support existing testing programs, along with $100 million to help employees comply with President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate, should it survive legal challenges and take effect in the coming weeks or months. 

Whitmer, a Biden ally, on Monday acknowledged the federal mandate could be "a problem" for businesses and prompt employees to quit the workforce. 

While COVID is surging statewide, Albert acknowledged that the Michigan Legislature may not be able to finalize the spending plan by the end of the year. The House and Senate are expected to work in Lansing next week before lawmakers break ahead of the Christmas holiday.

As of Monday, Michigan ranked first in the nation for COVID-related hospitalizations, first in test positivity rate and fourth for total case rate, according to CDC data. 

“This is something that we can work on over the next few weeks, and hopefully when we get back in January, is something that we will have made a lot of progress on,” Albert said of the spending plan. 

The proposal follows testimony from health care officials, who last week urged lawmakers to address worker shortages and increase access to monoclonal antibodies. 

"The best defense against COVID is and has been vaccination," Adam Carlson, senior vice president at the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, a lobbying and advocacy group, told appropriations committee members. 

"The next best option, however, is monoclonal antibody treatment. It helps reduce the severity of the illness and prevent hospitalizations,” he said. 

Michigan is currently administering roughly 4,000 monoclonal antibody treatments per day, up from about 200 per day in the summer, according to Carlson. But hospitals are struggling to staff distribution sites, he said. 

Hospitals are already over capacity and struggling with employee burnout, Carlson told lawmakers. There are more than 20,000 open health-care positions in the state, and "the problem is growing," he said. 

"Last spring, frontline caregivers were lauded for treating our friends and family members at the peak of the pandemic," Carlson said in committee testimony. "Now, there are increasing reports of our health care team members being assaulted, spit on, harassed and insulted."

The House’s new COVID-19 spending proposal comes as Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature continue negotiations over other federal aid, including $5.8 billion in remaining stimulus funds awarded to the state under the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The Michigan Senate last week unanimously approved a $3.3 billion plan to begin addressing the state's crumbling water infrastructure, including $1 billion to replace lead service lines, which have been linked to contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor. 

The House last week advanced a $369 million spending bill to help recruit and retain police officers across the state, including $50 million to support school resource officers following last week's mass shooting at Oxford High.

Whitmer has proposed a series of stimulus spending plans of her own, including a $1.4 billion to expand low-cost or no-cost child care, $150 million for park upgrades and $32 million for law enforcement.

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