National health insurance debate comes to Georgia

ATLANTA -- The debate over nationalized health reform is beginning to spill over into Georgia.


President Obama said he wants Congress to pass a comprehensive health-care bill for him to sign by fall. Though it was a theme of last year's campaign, his statement earlier this month moved the issue into the spotlight after the distractions of a recession and two wars and has spurred political reaction here by supporters and opponents.

Not only are newspaper editorial pages and radio talk shows filled with references to it, but interest groups on both sides of the issue are hoping to generate grassroots support for their positions.

Friday, the Democratic Party of Georgia e-mailed supporters across the state to launch a campaign to convince members of the state's Republican senators support President Obama's proposal.

"I don't have to tell you that a concerted effort from the extreme Republican minority in the U.S. Senate can derail or delay President Obama's health care reform plan," wrote Chairwoman Jane Kidd. "It's our duty to make certain that (Sens.) Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss are sticking up for Georgians, not obstructionist Republican party bosses and the special interests."

Supporters can sign a petition at

June 6, Obama's former campaign network, now called Organizing for America, held a series of meetings around the state to watch a televised message from the president and learn how they can push his proposal locally.

The day before, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia distributed to the media a report that says the rising price of insurance premiums isn't due to insurers' profits but to the high cost of medical innovations.

The report was by the WellPoint Institute of Health Care Knowledge which is owned by the parent of Blue Cross here and in 13 other states. It cites research from PricewaterhouseCoopers that insurance companies have a profit rate of 3 cents on every premium dollar, compared to about 5 percent for hospitals and utility companies or the 25-40 percent rate surveys show the public thinks.

If profit isn't the villain, then a government-run health system isn't the solution, reading between the lines of the press release.

"We have to address the key drivers of health care costs to be able to lower premiums and increase access to health care for all members of the communities we serve," said Monye Connolly, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., was more direct in an opinion column he released Wednesday to Georgia papers. Price, a physician and chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote that Democrats are trying an end run since overt government-run insurance has little popular support.

"To get around this obstacle to Washington control, many Democrats, including President Obama, have proposed the creation of a �public option' to �compete' with private insurers," Price wrote. "This is nothing more than a backdoor path to a government takeover of health care."

He argues that private insurers would have trouble competing against any government-subsidized option.

As evidence of how significant the health care issue has been, consider that three Georgia physicians and a dentist gave up their practices to be part of the eventual decision in Congress, Republicans all. Besides Price, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun are physicians while John Linder is a dentist as was the late Rep. Charlie Norwood.

Business groups, like the Georgia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, have long had an interest in health care and have stepped up the pace of action alerts to members, urging them to write elected officials. NFIB, for example, argues against government operation of health insurance.

Georgia officials have offered their own solutions to health-care costs and access. They have stopped far short of the sweeping overhaul Obama is proposing. Instead, they ranged from Web sites for comparison shopping of policies to protecting medical professionals from liability when they volunteer in public clinics.

As modest as the homegrown proposals have been, they were made in recognition of voter frustration. Which raises the question of how Georgia voters will react to whatever Congress finally passes. If the Democrats hit a home run, they could cement their popularity for a generation in the way Franklin Roosevelt did with his New Deal programs.

Consider a national poll conducted June 4-7 which found that 65 percent of those responding said they would be more likely to support a candidate who agreed with legislation focused on controlling health care costs. The survey by Diageo/Hotline Poll of 800 registered voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percent. It also found that 62 percent support Congress overhauling the health care system.

That has to make Republicans, even in a red state like Georgia, a little nervous. Health care has been one of the top five issues in every election for the last dozen years, and the party perceived to have fixed it will have considerable momentum in next year's races.

So, don't be surprised if the debate volume rises around here soon.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.



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