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Midday West Michigan

MiBiz with Mark Sanchez

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Mark Sanchez, Senior Writer, MiBiz

Bridging the Digital Divide.

Patrick Center: Wednesday afternoon. Time for our bimonthly conversation with MiBiz senior writer Mark Sanchez. We've talked about this for years, the digital divide. It would appear there are signs that there's a narrowing of that divide or a closing of the gap or however you might want to put it.

Mark Sanchez: Maybe bridge the gap? I’ll use bridge, but maybe we’ll bridge the gap because there’s some money out there. The state has money from Federal COVID relief funding. You also have the infrastructure act that recently passed Congress and President Biden signed. And that provides a good chunk of money I think about $65 billion nationwide to help communities. Look at this issue of expanding broadband Internet access. And this issue is really just risen to the top infrastructure issue and a significant one here in the pandemic from students K-12 through college from people who were working at home and remote workers and that's become known for many people now to other areas of the economy. There is this digital divide in the pandemic really exposed. The lack of high-speed internet access in a lot of communities. So, there's some money there in the story this weekend about this I use the example of Ottawa County which just completed the survey of 4,000 residents answered that and now they're working with and outfit merit network out of Ann Arbor, a consultant Ottawa County hired to work on this project. This is going to really identify where the gaps. What’s the need and maybe come up with some kind of a new technology and a new business model But I talked to Paul Huxley. They're planning director in Ottawa County. It said you're probably need some kind of a public private partnership that will look at this issue and come up with a solution to at least for Ottawa county bridge, the digital divide.

Patrick Center: But this is a statewide issue. It's not just Ottawa County.

Mark Sanchez: This is this is a statewide issue, especially for the rural counties where folks are living there, and they need this to run their small business, to educate to, you know, fill in the blank telehealth has exploded exponentially in the pandemic. So, if you need to access somebody through telehealth and telemedicine. That's an issue as well. If you don't have high-speed Internet service. So, there are a number of communities several communities with markets around the state. That kind of looking at this issue and trying to craft some kind of a solution and we'll see what comes out of this. I know Kent County is one of those communities they've been working on this for a number of months. Roughly this year will be some proposals come up to perhaps bridge this divide.

Patrick Center: It would appear you'll need some permanent funding some kind of structure there because as you and I both know technology is constantly evolving.

Mark Sanchez: Constantly and sometimes it's not cheap. Again, when I talk to a gentleman Paul Sachs here in Ottawa County. He talked about the potential will maybe not necessarily putting more fiber in the ground that maybe putting up some towers where the county would do that. Fund it put it up, and then the ISPs, the Internet service providers would lease bandwidth off that tower to provide that last Internet service to those rural homes in the issue is really where you don't have high density. When you get into the some of the rural portions of counties and areas around the state. but internet service provider simply can't afford to put the fiber in the ground when they only have a small number of homes. It's just not economically viable. But yet those residents still need it many people who talk about this issue is becoming an essential public utility a service to fly electricity that you kind of need to function of the household and there are an estimated maybe 300, 400,000 households in the state that don't have access to reliable affordable high-speed Internet service.

Patrick Center: Well, there's plenty of money flowing and it's going in all directions at this time. So, we're working on bridging the digital divide. Well, let's address the Healthcare worker shortage. 300 million dollars set aside to address this issue.

Mark Sanchez: Yeah. This was part of a $1.2 billion supplemental spending package that the Legislature and the governor agreed to two weeks back and there's $300 million in there to provide some grants. The hospital the acute care hospital, behavioral health hospital, federally qualified health centers and post-acute care centers that is your longer-term care providers. Your acute care hospitals which share $225 million of the $75 million would go to the post-acute care providers in the federally qualified health centers. This is an issue that was they have even before the pandemic and accelerated in the pandemic as health care workers who are leaving the position, they're going to different care setting. The retiring or quitting their jobs are moving on to different careers. The certainly less stressful than being a nurse in the hospital has been the last two years. There's a lot of burnouts in the health care profession right now and how bad is it? the Michigan health and hospital Association estimates, that toward the end of last year. There are about a 1000 hospital beds in Michigan that were un staff and the vacancy rate back then was about 14% or so. And that's almost three times what it was pre pandemic. So, there's an issue here. You know, health cares a critical service, you need staff you can have bed, but you need people to staff those beds. So, the governor, the Legislature agreed on this one and their $300 million that will go to a hospital to pay the fine or we touch in bonuses or help with tuition or health care workers or college debt. But still last I talked to him, and this is a story in this week's edition of MiBiz the state and the hospital Association. We're still putting together a formula, but they hope that money to begin flowing, probably or possibly, by April.

Patrick Center: We're talking with MiBiz senior writer Mark Sanchez will stick with health care. Also in this edition, you address Blue Cross Blue Shield spending $860 million on COVID-related claims in 2021.

Mark Sanchez: This is a story we posted yesterday at MiBiz.com. Blue Cross Blue Shield released its annual financial results and on the core health insurance business it lost money, about $374 million underwriting loss. It made a lot of money on its investments, some of its subsidiaries such as the workers comp a group, AF Group out of Lansing. Overall the corporation netted $360 million in net income for that year. Interesting part of the report however, where we were talking to the executives is, how has these COVID costs affected the operation? And last year Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan spent $860 million on COVID-19 treatment, testing, and vaccination. Over two years it spent $2.1 billion on those COVID related issues. Now, in each of last two years when Blue Cross Blue Shield prepared rates for the coming year, it did not include those COVID related costs in the equation to prepare rates. That's going to happen this year as the pandemic begins to transition, at least signs of a transition, and we're seeing folks talk more about this and not going to be in an endemic situation. Blue Cross Blue Shield is looking at, as it begins talking about 2023 in rates for that year, you're cooking those costs from COVID related issues and medical claims into that rate proposal that will go into the state sometime later this year.

Patrick Center: MiBiz senior writer Mark Sanchez, thank you so much.