As the focus of the health-care reform debate in Washington has shifted from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate, the "public option" government-run insurance program continues to command the pundits' attention. While the public option warrants significant discussion, I believe the media's fixation on it obscures one of the most dangerous aspects of this legislation.
In its current form, the House Democrats' health-care bill would create a huge increase in the number of Americans eligible for government-run Medicaid health care. But these increased costs would not be covered by the federal government. Instead, they would be passed onto the states in the form of unfunded mandates -- with Georgia being one of the most negatively affected states.
Georgia would be one of just 14 states that would see the Medicaid-eligible population balloon by 45 percent. In fact, if the bill passes, Heritage Foundation research indicates that as many as one in five Georgians would have access to a government-run health-care entitlement. Estimates indicate that over the five-year life span of the bafflingly titled "Affordable Health Care for America Act," more than $2.4 billion in new expenses would be added to our state's budget. Even a watered-down alternative also being proposed could cost as much as $2 billion for Georgians.
THIS ADDITIONAL FINANCIAL burden would crush our state budget. In Georgia, we already have witnessed a massive state budget shortfall caused by deteriorating economic conditions and dramatically lower tax revenue. Unlike Washington, our state constitution requires us to balance the budget each year.
As elected officials, we have two basic tools to achieve balance: cut spending or increase taxes. I'm proud that Georgia Senate Republicans addressed recent shortfalls without raising taxes during the 2009 legislative session. Together, we have cut billions from the budget, requiring state employee furloughs and state agencies sustaining cuts as high as 50 percent. We already are identifying additional budget cuts that will be necessary during the 2010 legislative session.
I recently sent a letter to our U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, expressing my deep concern about the bill in its current form. I applauded their ongoing efforts to defeat this bill, and thank them for their recent procedural vote against the bill, which I believe threatens to short-circuit our state's potential for growth and progress.
The unfortunate reality is that if health-care reform in its present form passes, no amount of cutting will bring our state budget into balance. While the Obama administration misleadingly states that tax increases in the bill only target the top 1 percent of wage earners, the truth is the health-care bill will force an increase in taxes for all Georgians.
THERE ARE BETTER health-care solutions than trillions in new spending, increased taxes and increased government intervention. In Georgia, we have made progress without raising taxes or increasing government interference. Those who are most at-risk and cannot afford insurance can receive care through our Safety Net Clinics initiative, and the Senate passed a health-care marketplace initiative that offers insurance policy portability and small business tax deductions for health insurance.
I'm confident that through the efforts of everyday citizens, business owners and elected officials, our nation will rebound from this economic downturn. Our state is poised to benefit tremendously as businesses considering relocation view Georgia as an attractive destination because of our low taxes, unmatched quality of life and thriving communities.
However, I fear our best efforts to prepare for success can be undermined by a massive unfunded mandate from the federal government that will cripple our state budget as never before. I ask you to please join me in voicing your concern about this bill by helping inform those around you.
(The writer has served as Georgia's lieutenant governor since 2007.)