ATLANTA - Republicans were poised Tuesday to make it even tougher for Georgia to expand a government health insurance program for the poor, undercutting a big part of an overhaul backed by Democratic President Barack Obama.
The election-year legislation was expected to come up for a vote as soon as Tuesday as state lawmakers in the General Assembly held their second-to-last day of the legislative year. By law, Georgia's state lawmakers meet for 40 working days. Legislators are in a mad rush to pass their bills because any legislation that does not win approval by the final day on Thursday automatically fails for the year.
One of the most significant bills would give Georgia's Republican-dominated legislature the final say on whether to loosen the rules governing how much money people can make and still qualify for the government-funded Medicaid program. The Democratic health care plan counted on states to expand their Medicaid programs to include people who are too poor to afford subsidized health insurance but otherwise ineligible for government care.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has said the long-run costs of expanding the state's Medicaid system are too expensive. GOP lawmakers want to permanently restrict the governor and his successors from changing course. The measure will likely prove popular with Republican voters during an election year. Deal's administration projects that an expansion would cost Georgia roughly $48 million in the first full year, or less than 1 percent of the proposed state budget. Deal's administration projects those costs would rise to nearly $498 million by 2023.
"We believe that a decision about an entitlement program should be made by the legislative branch and not an appointed board," said state Sen. David Shafer, the Republican President Pro Tempore. "The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt. ... We should be careful about doing our long-term planning based on promises the federal government is making."
Democratic lawmakers say enlarging the state's Medicaid system is Georgia best opportunity to get insurance for an estimated 400,000 people.
"I have never seen a piece of legislation where the majority party voices its skepticism of its own governor," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "We have the greatest treatment, the greatest doctors in the world. The only problem is, not enough Georgians have access to those hospitals."
Capitol police arrested several protesters who chanted from the Senate gallery in support of enlarging the Medicaid system. Zan Thornton, 52, said she blames her mother's death from cancer on her inability to seek affordable care. She was too poor to pay for health care, but her family made too much money to qualify for government coverage.
"The governor has other priorities," Thornton said. "His priorities are big business, not the people."
House lawmakers also voted to restrict companies from offering coverage for abortion in health insurance policies sold on federally run exchanges, except when a pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother. Democratic opponents have faulted the plan, saying it offers no exceptions for women who are raped and limits a woman's access to abortion. That bill will now head to the Senate for final approval.
Other measures under debate would:
- Require drug testing for people receiving food stamps;
- Allow Georgia to adopt a medical marijuana program for patients suffering from some illnesses.