Originally created 05/11/00

Medicaid to widen medical coverage



Expanding Medicaid to cover more of the uninsured is just one strategy Georgia is pursuing to address the growing problem of the uninsured, according to Department of Community Health Commissioner Russ Toal.

"It absolutely will be a series of initiatives," Mr. Toal said in Augusta on Wednesday during a meeting of the department's board. "We know we are not going to have one great big state-run health care plan. That's not what we're looking to do at all."

About 19 percent of Georgians -- between 1.2 million and 1.3 million -- were uninsured in 1998, Mr. Toal said. It is a great concern for Gov. Roy Barnes, who has asked Mr. Toal to submit a report on options by Aug. 31. The issue also will be investigated by a legislative study committee.

"Not dealing with this problem is going to create greater problems for the state as we go forward," Mr. Toal said. His department is asking for input from the business community and chambers of commerce throughout the state.

The vast majority of the uninsured -- 68 percent -- work full time, Mr. Toal said. About a third -- nearly 440,000 people -- are wage-earners who work for small businesses of less than 10 employees. More than half earn 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, about $34,000 a year for a family of four.

Overwhelming medical bills also are blamed for half the personal bankruptcies in the country, said board member Gary Edelman of Tucker.

Board Chairwoman Joyce Blevins of Thomson asked whether the state could provide incentives for businesses to offer coverage and whether it is one of the options being studied. In fact, companies wanting to take advantage of Georgia's rural economic development program, One Georgia, must offer health insurance to employees to qualify for the incentives, Mr. Toal said.

"We have an employer-based health care system, and we don't want to damage that at all," he said.

But some of the uninsured will be picked up under expanded Medicaid eligibility guidelines that go into effect July 1. Medicaid will then pick up an additional 2,100 infants and pregnant women whose income is up to 235 percent of the poverty level, or more than $40,000 a year for a family of four. About 11,000 children younger than age 18 whose families earn that much will be able to qualify under the PeachCare program. And those working their way off welfare will get a second year of transitional Medicaid benefits, which will aid about 5,000 families.

The department also is studying a plan to extend primary care and pharmaceutical coverage for those who are HIV positive and earn 300 percent or less of the poverty level. Although many patients have done remarkably well on the drug cocktails, the regimen can be very expensive and costs about $18,000 a year, Dr. Edelman said.

"That money could very well keep somebody working and providing for their families," he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.