Per­due mea­sure to help unin­sured

Plan aims to help small busi­nesses pro­vide cov­er­age

The Covington News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Shan­non McCaf­frey

AT­LANTA — Hop­ing to re­duce the swelling ranks of the unin­sured in Ge­or­gia, Gov. Sonny Per­due on Tues­day un­veiled a plan aimed at help­ing small busi­nesses of­fer cov­er­age for their em­ploy­ees.

The vol­un­tary, busi­ness­friendly pro­posal put forth by Per­due is far less am­bi­tious than Repub­li­can-spon­sored plans in place in Mas­sachusetts and un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in Cal­i­for­nia that man­date health cov­er­age.

Ge­or­gia has 1.7 mil­lion unin­sured res­i­dents, state of­fi­cials said. Per­due is of­fer­ing up to $20 mil­lion from state cof­fers, which could in­sure some 34,000 peo­ple, or 2 per­cent of that.

“We think it’s a great start, a great be­gin­ning,” Per­due told re­porters Tues­day.

Dubbed the Health In­sur­ance Part­ner­ship for Ge­or­gia, the plan’s costs would be shared by fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments as well as the em­ployer and em­ployee. Cost sav­ings from Med­i­caid re­forms in Ge­or­gia would help pay the costs.

Per­due, a Repub­li­can, said he was hope­ful the plan could be im­ple­mented by next July. But first the fund­ing must be ap­proved by the GOP-led Leg­is­la­ture.

At least one key Repub­li­can in the Leg­is­la­ture was unim­pressed.

“It’s an en­ti­tle­ment pure and sim­ple,” House Rules Com­mit­tee Chair­man Earl Ehrhart said.

Ehrhart, of Pow­der Springs, said he was con­cerned that the state would be left hold­ing the bag if the fed­eral money fell short, as it has with the state’s chil­dren’s health in­sur­ance pro­gram. And he said the state is be­ing more gen­er­ous with busi­ness than with teach­ers, who earn less money.

Lt. Gov. Casey Ca­gle, who pre­sides over the Se­nate, praised the gov­er­nor’s an­nounce­ment.

“I have not had the chance to fully re­view Gov. Per­due’s HIP plan, but it cer­tainly ad­dresses the is­sue of unin­sured Ge­or­gians and will in­cen­tivize our small busi­ness own­ers to part­ner with their em­ploy­ees and the state to pro­vide health care cov­er­age,” Ca­gle said in a state­ment. “I com­mend the gov­er­nor for tak­ing on such a chal­leng­ing is­sue.”

There was no im­me­di­ate com­ment from House Speaker Glenn Richard­son.

Small busi­nesses with 50 or fewer em­ploy­ees would be el­i­gi­ble, as would sole pro­pri­etor “mom and pop” busi­nesses. Em­ploy­ees must earn less than 300 per­cent of the fed­eral pov- erty limit, or $62,000 a year for a fam­ily of four. State of­fi­cials es­ti­mate some 380,000 Ge­or­gians would qual­ify.

The state must re­ceive a fed­eral waiver to free up fed­eral dol­lars and Per­due said he’s been in dis­cus­sions with U.S. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Michael Leav­itt for the last year as the plan has taken shape. Some de­tails — like the pre­cise pre­mium costs — will not be known un­til the waiver comes through, he said.

Per­due, a Repub­li­can, said he was hope­ful the plan could be im­ple­mented by next July. But first the fund­ing must be ap­proved by the GOP-led Leg­is­la­ture. Per­due has had rocky re­la­tions re­cently with Richard­son af­ter the two sparred over a prop­erty tax re­fund ear­lier this year.

Per­due stressed that the pro­gram is not an en­ti­tle­ment and re­quires em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers pay­ing their share.

The state is al­ready pay­ing for the unin­sured, Per­due said. Ac­cess to in­sur­ance would give res­i­dents ac­cess to pre­ven­ta­tive care that would help save costs in the long run.

“It’s ei­ther pay me now or pay me later in health care,” he said.

Alan Es­sig, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ge­or­gia Bud­get and Pol­icy In­sti­tute, lauded the gov­er­nor for look­ing “to cover a pop­u­la­tion that cur­rently falls through the cracks.”

But a key unan­swered ques­tion is how much pre­mi­ums would cost.

“It’s more than just ac­cess to health care, we need to have af­ford­able ac­cess,” Es­sig said.

The plan won praise from David Raynor, state di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness. He said a re­cent sur­vey found that 53 per­cent of small busi­nesses in Ge­or­gia don’t of­fer health in­sur­ance for their em­ploy­ees. Most would like to but can­not af­ford the soar­ing costs, he said.

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