Patterson slams Gilbert's 'arrogance' in auto insurance reform push

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson delivers his annual State of the County address.

Lansing — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is fighting a long-shot effort to reform the state’s auto no-fault insurance law, calling the lame-duck push an “act of arrogance” by Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert.

House Republicans seeking to drive down nation-leading costs are attempting to revive and revise a plan that would allow motorists to choose their levels of medical coverage, ending a requirement for mandatory lifetime benefits. But the lower chamber adjourned without action Wednesday and is expected to wrap up work for the year on Thursday. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, worked with House Republicans on a similar plan in 2017 but has not returned to the Capitol for the latest push. Gilbert's team is promoting the plan behind the scenes and has said he may take the issue to the ballot in 2020 if legislators do not act this year or next.

“He’s going to have all the insurance he wants, okay, because he’s a billionaire,” Patterson said of Gilbert, the Quicken Loans founder. “He’ll never have to be warehoused in a Medicaid facility. So for him to take this opportunity away from the middle class is, I think, an act of arrogance.”

Patterson has long fought to protect the lifetime medical coverage guaranteed under Michigan’s unique auto insurance law. The longtime Republican elected official suffered significant injuries in a 2012 auto accident, but workers compensation covers his medical bills.

Still, the accident was “a real wake-up call" that made him more sympathetic to other auto accident victims, he said.

In a statement to The Detroit News on Wednesday evening, Gilbert called Patterson’s comments “disappointing” and expressed confidence the no-fault auto insurance law will be changed over the next few years.  "It’s just a matter of how and when,” he said.

“The auto insurance system in Michigan has been broken for decades. Millions of Michigan drivers are subjected to abusive rates and egregious policies that no driver in any of the remaining 49 states is forced to endure," Gilbert said.

"It is designed for a highly specialized segment of sophisticated plaintiff lawyers and a subset of medical providers who exploit the system for their own personal gains while middle-class drivers get stuck with the highest insurance premiums in the United States by astronomical margins.”

A draft amendment to Senate legislation would create a tiered system of medical coverage that auto insurance customers could choose from, including unlimited coverage, a $500,000 cap or a plan that covers $225,000 in hospital care and $25,000 in additional care.

The plan would also let seniors covered by Medicare opt out of personal injury protection, limit family-provided attendant care to 84 hours per week and mandate an audit of the Michigan Catastrophic Association.

With the lame-duck session expected to end Thursday, the last-minute push remains a “heavy lift” in the House, said Rep. Joe Bellino, a Monroe Republican who is working to generate interest in the lower chamber.

“I got to make an attempt,” Bellino said Tuesday. “Over 40 percent of people in my district are on fixed incomes … or they’re living at the poverty level or below the poverty level, and they can’t afford insurance. It’s too expensive. We’ve got to do something.”

In a new twist, House Republicans are considering legislation that would limit insurers' ability to use “non-driving” factors when setting rates. But Patterson and other critics say the plan does not go far enough to prevent "red lining" by the insurance industry they contend has fueled exorbitant costs in Detroit.

House Republicans are trying to get a handful of additional Democrats on board, Bellino said, expressing doubt he’ll be able to convince any Oakland County Republicans, who Patterson has lobbied for years.

“I think L. Brooks already put the hammer down,” Bellino said.

Lawmakers consistently agree the status quo has left Michigan with some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country, but they have routinely failed to agree on a solution amid intense lobbying by trial attorney, hospital and insurance groups. 

Four Democrats voted for the 2017 plan, which failed in a 45-63 vote despite Duggan’s efforts to woo members of the Detroit delegation. Patterson said he is confident opponents have the votes to kill the lame-duck push and “hold the line until next year.”

“We want reform next year too,” Patterson said, “but we want realistic reform that doesn’t hurt the driving public. This sort of guts the whole auto no-fault proposal, and I don’t think it’s what the public wants.”

While Duggan continues to seek no-fault auto insurance reforms through legal action, Patterson said he thinks "it's worse" that Gilbert leading the legislative push, "because I don’t think he’s had time to study the issue."

But Gilbert, in a statement provided through his office, said the same driver who pays approximately $800 a year for auto insurance in Cleveland will pay $3,400 in Michigan for similar coverage.

"This is the system that Brooks so passionately supports," Gilbert said, "an unethical and amoral scheme that keeps Michigan’s competitiveness down, our ability to retain and attract young talent to our state more difficult and forces senior citizens to pay $1,100 more annually for duplicate coverage that provides no additional benefit."

A House Republican spokesman said Wednesday evening that lawmakers continue to work on the no-fault auto insurance plan in hopes of securing the votes for final passage on Thursday.