An additional 15,000 children and pregnant women grappling with Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis should become eligible for government health insurance starting next week, once the funding receives final legislative approval, Gov. Rick Snyder said Monday.
The expanded health coverage will apply to people under 21 who used Flint's water system from April 2014, when the city switched its water source, until the time it is deemed safe again. It also will cover women who were pregnant or become pregnant between early March and the safety declaration. They would remain eligible until age 21 or, if pregnant, until two months after their child is born.
"That's another major step forward," Snyder said of treating those who may have been exposed to lead while drinking the improperly treated water for at least 18 months. Lead has been linked to developmental delays, learning disabilities and health problems.
The Republican governor, who has apologized for failures that created the disaster, also said Monday that he has formally asked for a meeting with President Obama when the president visits Flint on Wednesday. He disputed an earlier report that he was too busy, saying that he had said last week that he had a full schedule because he did not want to confirm Obama's trip before it was officially announced by the White House.
In January, Mr. Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan, authorizing FEMA to coordinate emergency assistance for up to 90 days and freeing up $5 million in federal aid.
Days later, Snyder apologized to constituents, saying "You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me."
Obama, whom Snyder will greet at the airport, is expected to speak at a high school, receive a briefing on the federal effort to assist in the response and hear directly from Flint residents about the toll the contamination has had on their health and their lives. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the details of the visit were still being planned, but he noted that Snyder's schedule "got a little freed up" and "we'll keep you posted on what sort of interactions they may have."
While under state management, the city began using the Flint River for a water source to save money but did not treat the water for corrosion. As a result, lead leached from old pipes. Flint switched back to a Detroit-area water system last fall, but the lead problem still is not fully solved, and people are drinking filtered or bottled water.
Snyder again urged city residents to run their kitchen and bath faucets for five minutes a day for two weeks to help flush lead particles out of pipes and recoat them with anti-corrosion chemicals. He said the state will cover the additional cost, which is being calculated.
For the expanded health coverage, the income cutoff is 400 percent of the poverty level, or $97,000 for a family of four. Snyder said a state Senate committee is expected to transfer $20.9 million on Wednesday to expand Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program – programs jointly funded between the state and federal government. The Obama administration authorized the waiver two months ago, and a House panel OK'd the move last week.
The state also plans to expand lead abatement in Flint homes and to dedicate case managers to help coordinate primary care, mental health, nutritional and educational services.
As part of his request for another $165 million in state funding for Flint this fiscal year – which is pending in the GOP-controlled Legislature – Snyder included $25 million to replace thousands of lead service lines that run from water mains into residences and businesses. That is on top of $2 million already allocated to replace 500 or so pipes; more than 30 were replaced in a pilot phase.
Snyder said it would be "premature" to speculate on whether more money will be needed despite a top aide telling the Detroit Free Press on Friday that $28 million more could be required, partly because galvanized pipes are a problem, not just aging lead lines. Snyder noted that his budget request would create a $50 million reserve fund that could be used and said officials are still trying to determine how many pipes there are.
But the true cost of the crisis, some analysts say, goes beyond finances. As University of Michigan in Ann Arbor engineering professor Glen Daigger told The Christian Science Monitor in February:
"The cost of a poorly functioning system [like Flint's] is not just the repairs to the pipes. You really have to think about the situation not so much ... from a technical perspective," Professor Daigger says. Rather, "it's one really of confidence, of people having gone through what the citizens of Flint have been going through.
"Quite frankly, confidence has to be restored ... and restoring confidence has to be founded in fact, so that this community can pick up and start moving forward from a social and economic perspective," he adds.