ATLANTA -- In the final moments of the 40-day legislative session’s 39th day, the Senate gave final passage to a watered-down version of a bill to block state employees from helping Georgians sign up for health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The proposal was tacked onto another healthcare measure, House Bill 493, before the Senate agreed to it in a party-line vote about 5 minutes before the midnight cutoff for the next-to-the-last day of the current legislative session, sending it to the governor to sign it into law. It aims to prohibit the use of state employees or resources to encourage the public to enroll in what has become known as Obamacare.
“I think it sends a message repeatedly today that we do not agree with the Affordable Care Act,” said Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Renee Unterman, a nurse and a Republican from Buford.
Before it was weakened, the original proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, and a group of tea-party freshmen had a blanket ban on state activity to implement the federal law. It blocked the insurance commissioner from enforcing the federal mandates in policies sold in the state, and it empowered the attorney general to prosecute anyone or any state agency that stepped over the line.
It specifically would have required the University of Georgia to turn over to the state general treasury a $2.2 million federal grant to supply “navigators” who help members of the public find an insurance plan. And it would have kept school employees from carrying out the navigator role.
The version that ultimately passed allows the school to complete the functions under the current grant but would prohibit it from getting a new one. Plus it now says the insurance commissioner is in no way prevented from policing the insurance companies and following up on complaints.
Also exempted from the prohibitions of the version sent to the governor are “institutions of higher learning or otherwise.” State employees can’t try to influence public opinion but they can influence public policy.
Asked what practical effect the bill will have after all of the exceptions, Unterman said, “I think it’s a very strong statement.”
Democrats complained that the bill amounted to efforts by southern states in the 1850s to nullify federal laws they didn’t agree with. They also compared it to southerners’ reluctance to end racial segregation despite federal laws and court decisions.
They claimed Republicans chiefly are bucking the federal law because they don’t like President Barack Obama.
“We in this state have a political problem,” said Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon. “You don’t like the man who did the plan.”
Earlier in the day, the Senate gave final passage of HB 990, which addresses another aspect of Obamacare, namely the expansion of Medicaid. Sponsored by the leaders of the House and also hotly debated by Democrats, it requires the legislature to approve any changes in Medicaid eligibility that would allow people with higher incomes to enroll.
Obamacare was designed with Medicaid being expanded to cover more people of modest incomes. Those with middle incomes can get insurance through health exchanges with taxpayers subsidizing the premiums.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled states have the option not to expand Medicaid, and Georgia is among those that chose not to, citing the cost to the state budget. In arguing for HB 990, Republican leaders said that only the legislature should authorize Medicaid changes because the state constitution requires the General Assembly to balance the budget every year.
Gov. Nathan Deal has 40 days to decide to sign or veto the bills after the legislature wraps up Thursday. He has said he agrees with HB 990, and Spencer said the governor was part of the negotiations on the final version of the bill to block Obamacare implementation.