Lack of contractors slows lead removal from Flint and other Michigan homes

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Image: Eric Norris

By Jack Nissen
Capital News Service

Since receiving $24.8 million from Medicaid to remove lead from contaminated homes almost a year ago, the Department of Health and Human Services has abated only 23 homes of lead in Flint.

Another 47 Flint homes are undergoing cleanup. So far, $660,200 of those Medicaid funds have been spent in Flint and another $730,500 spent elsewhere, state officials said.

It can take a long time to remove lead from a house—close to three to five months—but before removal can happen, contractors need to be available. And there just aren’t enough.

“It’s the biggest impediment to spending those dollars,” said Tina Reynolds, the health policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council. “Lead risk assessors and contractors are in short supply. It’s related to us only having so much money to hire them so there was only a small pool of people willing to do the work.”

Michigan is the first state to receive Medicaid funding for lead removal. Some of it can be spent in communities other than Flint, which received nationwide attention for lead contamination in its drinking water.

To fully take advantage of that money and combat the shortage, the health agency has hired someone to help increase the number of lead contractors. The new workforce development coordinator is entrusted with finding those that could become lead contractors.

“His role is to really get out into communities, starting in Flint, and looking at who’s available in the community to take the training that may have a little bit of construction knowledge,” said Carin Speidel, the Lead Safe Home Program manager. “It’s going to be a big undertaking because it’s not an overnight process.”

The reasons for the shortage date back to the recession in 2008, when many contractors couldn’t find work and began finding jobs elsewhere.

“The industry is maxed out in terms of its capacity,” Speidel said. “It’s a nationwide issue.”

Lead-removal services include paint, walls and water lines. Reynolds says there is a disconnect between the program and eligible residents. They may not know about program, or they don’t want to do the paperwork. Sometimes there’s a language barrier as well.

Toeducate people about the program and the dangers of lead in general, the state is taking steps to reduce confusion.

“So people are now going door to door to encourage people to get tested,” she said.

So far, 190 eligible people have enrolled in the Medicaid program. One hundred and fifty of them have had tests conducted on their homes.

While most of this money would go to Flint, there’s $6 million available for consortiums and local health departments that could providet services outside of Genesee County, including West Michigan.

It’s a welcome source of money, said Paul Haan, the executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, but there are problems with getting it to people after his coalition receives it.

People are used to a lot of restrictions when it comes to getting federal housing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Haan said. There isn’t a lot of confidence the funds will be easily accessible. But Medicaid money is much easier to get.

Haan’s coalition oversees some of the hardest-hit places for lead poisoning like Kent County, which found more than 6 percent of its children under age 6 testing positive for lead poisoning in 2016. The Healthy Homes Coalition has applied for $1.5 million from the Medicaid fund.

Health and Human Services received six applications from consortiums for the abatement money and will announce its awards in late Novemberd.

Muskegon County, which has also applied for funds, struggles with even finding the opportunity to tell people about the services.

“A lot of the time, they will not let folks in their house to even provide education,” said public health education supervisor Jill Keast, of Muskegon County. “They may not want you to see their living conditions, or they may worried about (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and deportation.”

Muskegon County also has one of the highest lea -levels in children under the age of 6, at 4.3 percent. Keast says she likes it that more money is coming into the state, but says it’s still not enough.

“Flint should be a priority., We understand that and I do appreciate they need the funding right now,” she said. “However, it’s not helping our communities. Putting all your resources toward Flint doesn’t eliminate the issue of lead in other areas.”

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