The real question at DMC

Nearly four years ago, when Mike Duggan announced he was running for Wayne County prosecutor, I was appalled. For more than a dozen years, the politically savvy Duggan had been chief deputy to Boss Ed McNamara, the county executive.

That meant that Duggan was really chief enforcer for what was Michigan’s last great odorous political machine. Though he had a law degree and was the son of a federal judge, he had never really been a practicing lawyer, let alone a prosecutor.

Yet he won, thanks in no small part to the machine he had helped build. And now the fix is apparently in for Mike Duggan to head our city’s famously troubled Detroit Medical Center. Now 45, he is a celebrated opportunist, a schemer and a political player. He seems to know little about medicine and everything about politics.

Which could mean ... he might just be the right man for the job.

That depends, of course, on whether Duggan realizes how crucial the Detroit Medical Center is to the lives of thousands. The most sensible, efficient “bottom-line” solution will doom us all in the end — Detroit, the burbs and in a wider sense, civilization — if people are left to suffer and die without help.

Nobody has ever confused Mike Duggan with Mother Teresa. But he understands how to use power. When the Securities and Exchange Commission was started, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shocked everybody by appointing that old shady operator, Joe Kennedy, to run it. And he did a fabulous job; foxes, after all, know best how other foxes think. Duggan could be much the same way.

He gets it done and takes no prisoners. His campaign for prosecutor was a small example. There were two candidates whose qualifications dwarfed his; Sharon McPhail, a former assistant prosecutor, and George Ward, deputy to the retiring John O’Hair, and like his boss, a man of unquestioned honesty and integrity.

Unfortunately Ward was also a man without money, or name recognition, or a political machine. Then-state Sen. Virgil Smith, a man who sometimes seemed to be a bit foggy of thought and speech, had lost twice before and ought to have bailed out, since it was clear he could not win with the better-known McPhail in the race. Yet Smith stayed in, and got nearly three times as many votes as McPhail would have needed to overtake Duggan. Later — surprise, surprise — ol’ Virg got a job in the prosecutor’s office.

Since then, however, most of my sources — including McPhail — have been surprisingly impressed with the job Duggan has done as prosecutor. And when I called her up to ask about the report that he might head the DMC, her assessment was that “he is as capable as anyone who doesn’t have a medical background.”

What’s more, she didn’t add, Duggan is also personally close to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who for the first time finally appears to be showing some willingness to take stands on controversial issues. He is also tight with Mike Cox, the attorney general, who until winning election worked for Duggan in the prosecutor’s office.

He’ll need help. Fixing the Detroit Medical Center is going to take cooperation from a lot of sources, and a recognition that it isn’t just a Detroit problem. What has happened, as with so much else in Detroit, is that a lot of hospital systems have fled for the suburbs, leaving a large population of people who get sick and can’t pay.

Much of the money drain comes from Detroit Receiving, where they rush the trauma cases, and Hutzel Women’s Hospital, where more babies are born than at any other area hospital, including babies from real problem pregnancies across the area.

Nobody provides the amount of free care that the Detroit Medical Center does. What would happen to those people, or to the other hospitals left in the city — Henry Ford and St. John — if it were to close can’t easily be imagined. They would be overwhelmed.

Naturally, what we really need is to recognize the need for some basic form of national health care, especially if we ever hope to become a civilized country, like Canada, say. Failing that, however, we need to keep some version of the social safety net intact, tatters and all. Or someday, July 1967 could look like a tea party.


That’s not to say we need to create a parody of Soviet-style medicine. In one sense, the Detroit Medical Center already has been doing that. Dr. Stanley Levy, who came here from Pittsburgh to join the staff at Sinai Hospital in the mid-1950s, has been working with the DMC perhaps longer than any other physician now practicing.

Levy is the sort of well-rounded physician they used to write novels about. He spends vast amounts of time with his patients, routinely works 14- to 16-hour days (at age 76), and is a warm and giving man who can talk learnedly on any subject from opera to J. Robert Oppenheimer. He sees the problem with the DMC as being something else again.

“The real problem is that they have done their best to take the doctor out of the doctor-patient relationship. Their ‘patients’ bill of rights’ doesn’t include the right to choose their own doctor. They want patients to see whatever doctor is on duty,” much like getting an anonymous auto mechanic at Sears, Levy said.

I don’t know whether this phenomenon has, in fact, contributed to the Medical Center’s decline, but Duggan might want to consider the revolutionary step of actually consulting the doctors who make the place run if he takes on trying to save the DMC.


Worth going to: Amnesty International’s annual Human Rights Day celebration Wednesday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish Hall on Lafayette and Lincoln in Royal Oak.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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