The COVID-19 pandemic, and Michigan’s response to the health crisis, has unearthed new questions around the state’s public health infrastructure.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is a bloated bureaucracy with a $25 billion operating budget and serves a third of the state’s residents through their programs. It includes offices that respond to Michigan’s public health problems, while also running the state’s human services. These two sectors weren’t always a package deal; Governor Rick Snyder merged the Department of Health and Human Services just five years ago.
Listen: The COVID-19 Pandemic highlights issues with MDHHS.
Chad Livengood is a senior editor at Crain’s Detroit Business. He recently wrote a column titled “The case for Whitmer to break up MDHHS, create standalone public health department.” He says the MDHHS is a sprawling bureaucracy, with varied responsibilities falling under its umbrella. “You have a state department that now has 14,000 employees… By themselves, if you took them out of state government, they would be the 15th-largest employer in the state of Michigan,” says Livengood of the MDHHS.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the challenges inside MDHHS and the state’s need for a more robust public health response. “I think we need a standalone public health department. I think this pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of not just MDHHS, but there is not enough focus on public health… we have underfunded public health in this state for a long time,” says Livengood. He says it’s crucial to think about this structural change now to avoid making the same mistakes of the COVID-19 era in the future. Elected officials, however, are still preoccupied with putting out the fires of this pandemic. “There’s not that many people out there in the Legislature who have given this much thought right now. They’re fighting the daily fights,” says Livengood.