Originally created 01/18/06

Budget hearings start with health



ATLANTA - Dr. Rhonda Medows, the new Department of Community Health commissioner, faced sharp questions Tuesday about the State Health Benefit Plan as lawmakers launched their annual round of budget hearings.

Legislators also heard from State Superintendent Kathy Cox and Gov. Sonny Perdue during the first round of the two-day meetings.

The joint hearings, held by the budget-writing committees in the House and Senate, are supposed to focus on the spending plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, and revisions to this year's blueprint. But lawmakers often use the opportunity to publicly grill state officials about hot-button topics.

The health benefit plan, which provides insurance for nearly 630,000 people, has been under fire for months. United Healthcare of Georgia, the company chosen to run a large portion of the system, has struggled to get doctors and hospitals signed up, particularly in south Georgia.

State employees have complained loudly about being hit with a surcharge for tobacco use even though they don't smoke.