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Georgia governor candidates mixed on opt-out

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ATHENS, Ga. --- Even if Congress passes a health care reform bill that includes a public option, Georgians might not be able to take advantage of it.

A compromise proposal backed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would let states opt out of the public option, a government-run insurance program similar to Medicare that, ideally, would compete with private insurers and bring down prices. In states that opt out, consumers could not purchase coverage through the public option.

The opt-out idea drew a mixed response from the cast of candidates for Georgia governor.

Secretary of State Karen Handel said she does not think the Reid plan will pass, but if it does, "I believe Georgia would be better off if we could opt out of the whole thing."

But taxpayers still would be on the hook even in states that opt out, she said.

State Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said he is leaning toward opting out.

Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has made opposition to Democratic health care reform a centerpiece of his campaign. He initially said he would opt out but revised his position and said he would not if Georgians still had to foot the bill for health care reform.

A spokesman for state Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, said Mr. Scott would need to review the final legislation before commenting. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a vocal Republican critic of Democratic reform proposals in Congress, did not respond to a request for comment.

Deciding whether to opt out will be tough politically for state-level Republicans, some of whom have criticized the public option as creeping socialism, said Fazal Khan, a University of Georgia professor who teaches health-care policy. If candidates live up to their rhetoric and the public option turns out to work, they would have to explain to constituents why they are being denied access to affordable health care, he said. "It paints Republicans into a corner," Dr. Khan said. He predicted that few, if any, conservative states would opt out.

Democratic candidates seem to want to avoid the issue. Three -- Attorney General Thurbert Baker, former Georgia National Guard general David Poythress and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter -- would not comment until a final bill is written.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, the frontrunner for the 2010 nomination, issued a statement saying both parties should seek common ground but did not commit to letting Georgians buy into the public option.

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