Perdue measure to help uninsured
Plan aims to help small businesses provide coverage
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.