ATLANTA -- The Georgia Senate on Monday approved Gov. Roy Barnes' plan to hire a consumers' insurance advocate for his office after Republicans blasted the bill as a "power grab" targeting GOP Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.
"No one is saying we don't need an advocate," said Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, during a nearly 90-minute debate. "We have an advocate ... the insurance commissioner."
The legislation -- approved 36-19 primarily along party lines -- is one of three bills Mr. Barnes is pushing to reform the health insurance industry, and is the first to clear either the House or Senate.
It would establish a consumers' insurance advocate with a small staff and a $337,000 yearly budget to represent Georgians in rate cases.
Sen. Connie Stokes, D-Decatur, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said consumers need someone in state government independent of the insurance department to focus on keeping rates down.
Mr. Oxendine has approved more than 100 auto-insurance rate increases since taking office in 1995.
He also has been the target of criticism because he has collected more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from insurers, their families and insurance lawyers.
"We felt that any person who worked for the commissioner ... would not be able to be as objective," she said.
Other supporters argued that, unlike an elected insurance commissioner, a consumer advocate would not be subject to influence from industry campaign contributions.
But Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said the same line of reasoning could be applied to Mr. Barnes.
"Can you tell me how much money the governor received from insurance companies in his campaign?" Mr. Johnson asked Ms. Stokes.
Some Republicans also objected to language in the bill exempting from its provisions supplemental life or health insurance policies, such as insurance covering special cancer treatments.
Columbus-based AFLAC Inc., is the only company in the state issuing such policies. AFLAC and the company's executives are major political players in Georgia and give generously to political campaigns.
Ms. Stokes said she's not aware of any Georgians who have complained about supplemental policies.
But Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Lyons, who voted against the bill, said it makes no sense to write in such an exemption.