Southwest Michigan to benefit from road improvement grant

Resurfacing Project In Vicksburg, Work In Schoolcraft Part Of Grant

State Rep. Margaret O’Brien today announced special road funding projects in southwest Michigan that will allow road improvements to take place while a sustainable long-term solution is agreed upon.

“The announcement of new road repair projects across the state illustrates the steps being taken to make improvements in Michigan’s deteriorating roads and bridges,” said O’Brien, R-Portage. “We still have a long way to go to make up for the time when the state neglected our roads but recognizing the issue and working toward sustainable solutions is a first step in the right direction.”

The Michigan Legislature set aside a total of $230 million in grants from the fiscal year 2014 budget for road improvements across the state. Half of the existing state funds were available for appropriation late last year, and the other half is now being appropriated.

“I am pleased to see that the funds are being responsibly allocated to improve local roadways to ease the travel and minimize unnecessary vehicle repairs for residents due to poor road conditions,” O’Brien said.

Local road projects include:

• A $467,000 grant for resurfacing on W. Prairie Street from N. Boulevard Street to the Village of Vicksburg;

• Filling and drainage repair using $360,000 for US-131 from CN Rail North to Lyons Street in Schoolcraft.

This funding is in addition to $285 million the Legislature approved for roads and bridges in June, which is part of the fiscal year 2015 budget.

Although the state has allocated almost $870 million to improve roads and bridges since fiscal year 2012, the state spent zero general fund dollars on roads during fiscal years 2003-11.

Michigan Grants Patients Direct Access to Physical Therapists

Today, Michigan Gov Rick Snyder signed legislation that will allow patients in Michigan to go directly to a physical therapist for evaluation and treatment without a physician’s referral. With the enactment of SB 690, Michigan joins 49 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting some level of direct access to treatment by physical therapists without the need of a referral.

“This is a significant milestone for the people of Michigan, and for the physical therapy profession,” said Paul A. Rockar Jr, PT, DPT, MS, president of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). “APTA has long advocated for improved patient access to physical therapists, and I applaud Michigan’s achievement in making this policy a reality.”

SB 690, sponsored by Sen John Moolenaar and promoted by the Michigan Chapter of APTA (MPTA), creates the option for patients to see a physical therapist without a referral or prescription from a physician, for up to 21 days or 10 treatment visits. The new law will also allow patients to see a physical therapist directly for injury prevention and fitness promotion, with no time or visit limit. In addition to establishing direct access, SB 690 specifies that only licensed physical therapists may use the term “doctor of physical therapy” in connection with their services. The passage of this legislation is the culmination of many years of hard-fought effort on the part of MPTA that at times faced significant opposition. A similar bill was sponsored in the Michigan House of Representatives by Rep Margaret O’Brien.

“The goal of direct access to physical therapy in Michigan has been 34 years in the making,” said MPTA President Sue Talley, PT, DPT, C/NDT. “This achievement would not have been possible without the commitment of multiple MPTA presidents; legislative chairs; the grass roots efforts of our members and patients; and Sen Moolenaar and Rep O’Brien.”

“This is not only a victory for physical therapists in our state, but more importantly represents a great benefit to the people of Michigan who need the services of physical therapists,” said Craig Miller, PT, MPTA’s legislative director. “SB 690 will better equip physical therapists in Michigan to help our state achieve the triple aim of health care—to provide high-quality care that is cost effective and accessible for the health care consumer.”

The milestone of achieving some form of direct access to treatment in all 51 US jurisdictions comes on the heels of achieving direct access to evaluation throughout the US in 2013. However, while this is a historic achievement for the physical therapy profession, the fight for unfettered patient access to physical therapist services is far from over.

“There are a number of direct access states with provisions tied to their direct access law that are not based on evidence or on the best interests of the patient,” said Rockar. “APTA’s work will continue to remove these unwarranted provisions tied to treatment provided via direct access.”

The new Michigan law will take effect January 1, 2015. APTA provided a direct access grant to the Michigan Chapter to support its efforts on SB 690.

The Michigan Chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association (MPTA) is a professional membership association serving more than 2,600 active and retired physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, and physical therapy students in Michigan.

Autism education at WMU boosted by $4 million in state funding

Western Michigan University has been given a $4 million allocation from the state of Michigan for use in the university’s work related to autism spectrum disorder.

The funding is intended to help improve autism education and to better equip students graduating from WMU with the skills they need to serve Michigan families that deal with autism, said State Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, who made the announcement at WMU Friday morning.

Wayne Fuqua and Stephanie Peterson, chairwoman and professor of the WMU Department of Psychology, said that the money will be used to create jobs and support professionals already working in the field while simultaneously developing support networks for those dealing with autism.

“We’re thinking of autism almost like diabetes,” Fuqua said. “We know what causes diabetes. We can’t cure it but we certainly do a lot to improve the quality of life for people with diabetes. We can do the same for people with autism.

“With effective behavioral treatment, which is what we’re implementing and what we’re developing as researchers, we can change the life trajectory of so many of these children so that they don’t end up as, essentially, custodians of the state as they become older.”

Fuqua and Peterson were previously awarded a $500,000 grant in February by the Michigan Department of Community Health to create a wide range of autism services that serve to help those dealing with autism spectrum disorder.

O’Brien, who was flanked during the announcement by State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton and State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Antwerp Township, said that the money being allocated to WMU serves as a way to not only provide increased services for communities but also as a wise way to invest taxpayer money.

“We’re transferring $3 million from the autism fund, and $1 million is allocated from the general fund,” she said. “We need to have a long term conversation about investing taxpayer money; invest wisely on the front end so we can save money on the back end.”

State Rep. Margaret O’Brien urges ‘thoughtful’ investment in K-12 education

Last week, I wrote about my conversation with Kalamazoo school board president Patti Sholler-Barber, who strongly feels Michigan needs to up its spending on K-12 education.

The starting point for that conversation: State Rep. Margaret O’Brien’s comments at a recent public forum, in which O’Brien said she couldn’t get an answer to how much more money educators feel they need.

Sholler-Barber’s response, in essence, was that every district has different needs, so there’s not a single answer.

After that column came out, I had a chatty lunch with O’Brien to expand on her thoughts about the topic.

O’Brien, a Republican who represents Portage and western Kalamazoo County, said she agreed with much of what Sholler-Barber had to say — including the idea that it is time to start putting more money into the K-12 instruction.

O’Brien made the point the state has upped its K-12 spending since 2011, but that money has largely gone into stabilizing the state pension fund for school employees. While that’s a worthy and necessary expenditure, she said, it also hasn’t helped kids in the classroom.

Now it’s time to figure out how to invest in K-12 in ways that can best help students, O’Brien told me.

That means considering how to boost teacher compensation in way that attracts and retains the best and brightest into the profession, she said. How to lower class size in a way that maximizes the dollars spent. Create some pilot projects on a longer school year.

She also would like, she said, “less discussion about the politics and more about the kids. … I wish the politics could be taken out of it.”

Stepping away from the politics may be hard: O’Brien, who was first elected to the House in 2010, is now seeking the Republican nomination for the 20th District seat in the state Senate. Former state Rep. Lorence Wenke, a Republican, and state Rep. Sean McCann, a Democrat, also are running for the Senate seat.

The politics over K-12 education have been brutal in recent years. Many educators are still furious about Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision in 2011 to tap the State Education Fund to help balance the state budget. They also aren’t happy about the GOP’s expansion of charter and virtual schools, not to mention the right-to-work law, which is seen as a direct hit on teacher unions — all measures supported by O’Brien.

But in our conversation, O’Brien struck a bipartisan tone.

She defended the expansion of charter schools, saying parents want options for their children. As for the 2011 budget moves, O’Brien said it helped stabilize the state budget and create an environment for job growth — which is happening now.

But O’Brien also said she doesn’t reflexively back her GOP colleagues. She has reservations, for instance, about two GOP proposals currently on the table: One that would retain third-graders who fail to test as “proficient” on the state reading test and another to assign letters grades to schools and districts based on their performance.

The former proposal “isn’t founded in research,” O’Brien said, and the latter ignores the complexities of comparing schools that serve very different populations and have very different challenges.

O’Brien herself recently introduced House Bill 5223 to provide a statewide framework for teacher evaluations. O’Brien’s bill would allow districts to pick from one of four evaluations tools for teachers and clarifies other aspects of a 2011 bill mandating annual teacher evaluations.

O’Brien says the bill was a bipartisan effort — it was co-sponsored by Adam Zemke, an Ann Arbor Democrat — and reflects input of dozens of stakeholders, including teachers, superintendents and the all the major Michigan education organizations, including the unions.

“I totally agree with Patti that improving education needs to be a team effort,” O’Brien said.

Where she doesn’t agree with Sholler-Barber is the idea of raising taxes to generate more money for K-12 education. O’Brien maintains that Michigan’s improving economy already is increasing revenues.

As for how to spend the revenue increases, O’Brien said lawmakers need to be “thoughtful” about how to obtain the best bang for the buck. She applauds Snyder’s commitment to early childhood education and says she will continue to fight for money to maintain smaller class sizes in high-poverty elementary schools.

On the issue of teacher salaries, she said, “If we want to have the best and the brightest in education, we need salaries that reflect that,” especially in the math and sciences where young professionals can earn much more in other fields.

She said the Legislature should be guided by research and best-practices in deciding how to address K-12 issues.

“The best programs won’t be the cheapest,” she added. “And we all want a good education system. But taxpayers can’t afford unlimited costs.

“We need the research to guide us, and our decisions should be about what’s best for kids,” she added. “I’m not interested in getting into debates about the adults.”