Health bill still dividing

Even as Georgia’s Republican political leaders lambasted the historic health care legislation Congress approved Sunday night, some health care providers and analysts say the bill is a long-overdue step in the right direction.

But the real impact of the bill may not become clear for years – and could change depending on what politicians decide in the future, they said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said the bill will hurt small businesses and prove costly to taxpayers, though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation actually should save money in the long run.

“Unfortunately, the United States House of Representatives last night chose politics over the will of the American people. The enormous upheaval of our health care system was pushed through the House against the wishes of the majority of American families and businesses,” Perdue said Monday in a news release.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would have blocked the reform law from being enforced in Georgia failed Monday to get the necessary two-thirds majority in the state House of Representatives, however.

As with Sunday’s vote in the U.S. House, the vote went along party lines, with Democrats favoring the health care reform measure, and Republicans against it.

Paul Boumbulian, a professional health planner who is working with the health team for the OneAthens anti-poverty group, praised Sunday’s vote.

“I’ve been waiting 40 years for this,” he said. “More people who need care will receive care. In Athens, we have some desperate issues as far as taking care of sick people.”

Health care administrator Steven Smith said he has no opinion on the big-picture political questions the national health care bill raises.

But on the local level, the bill likely is to bring better care to places like rural Madison County, said Smith, CEO of MedLink Georgia.

“It creates a healthier community,” he said. “I think it will be a benefit to us.”

The bill aims to bring more poor people into the Medicaid program, Smith said, one of the main sources of insurance reimbursement for MedLink, which operates clinics in Madison and nine other Northeast Georgia counties. Several provisions of the bill are designed specifically to boost community health care clinics like those MedLink operates, he added.

However, just how well the reform legislation works remains to be seen, said Phaedra Corso, head of the department of health policy and management in the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

“I’m very pleased that it passed, but this is just the beginning. There is still a lot of hard work to be done,” Corso said. “I’m pleased because if we did not do something about health care in this country, with the rising number of uninsured and rising costs, we’d be in big trouble five or 10 years from now.”

The bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a slim 219-212 vote Sunday will help make health insurance available to the tens of millions of Americans who either lack or have inadequate coverage, Corso said.

But the law doesn’t really address financial issues such as how reimbursement to health care providers for treatment should be tied to patient outcomes, she said.

Jack Drew, president and CEO of Athens Regional Medical Center, said he would have to study the legislation more before he could say what the bill’s impact would be.

“Because we are a health center, we really have to analyze that legislation in terms of four different organizations,” Drew said. “What will be the impact on the hospital and such things as payments, copays and the number of uninsured, as well as emergency department utilization? From the perspective of being a large employer, what impact does it have on our employees, with such things as caps and pre-existing conditions?

“Because we are an employer of physicians through a physician services company, what impact does that legislation have on us in terms of how physicians get paid, and who are the patients they’re serving? Will more be enrolled in Medicaid? Will more of them be enrolled in health plans that are new?

“The fourth dimension is that we own a health plan and provide insurance to small and medium-sized businesses. What impact does that legislation have on them? It’s complex and multidimensional. Who knows what it does?” Drew said.

“At least it’s a start,” said Dr. Stephen Lucas, chief medical officer at ARMC. “Health care had to change. Let’s try to make something out of this.”

-Lee Shearer[email protected]
Athens Banner Herald

Posted March 23, 2010.