Responding to a backlash led by Georgia Tea Party activists against implementation of President Obama’s health care law, Republican Governor Nathan Deal decided to reconsider legislation that would have mandated the creation of a Georgia health insurance exchange.
Obama’s law requires states to prepare insurance exchanges for federal review by January 1, 2013. HB 476, which would have created the Georgia Health Exchange Authority, was introduced by State Reps. Richard Smith (R-Columbus) and John Meadows (R-Calhoun).
Proponents said the bill would allow them to plan for an exchange while continuing to fight Obamacare in court. Activists claimed the law would have jeopardized those court challenges and undercut their arguments against the policy.
Tea Partiers Demanded Withdrawal
According to Debbie Dooley, a coordinator with the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, a major calling and emailing campaign prevented the bill from being considered in the current session.
“There was a lot of pressure from the business community to implement the exchange. I do believe that although Gov. Deal had good intentions with this, it was very misguided because we’re in a battle for our health care system,” said Dooley.
Dooley said the best strategy would be to “focus all attention on solving Obamacare, before we go waving white flags and taking steps to set up a health care exchange.”
State Implementation or Federal?
Virginia Galloway, Georgia Director of Americans for Prosperity, said legislators were acting under the impression that if Obama’s law is upheld and Georgia did not set up the exchange, the federal government would step in to do so.
“Additionally, they understand that $1 million in federal funds would be lost if no commission were created,” Galloway said.
Dooley says having the state implement the health care system rather than the federal government is an inherently wrongheaded goal.
“They were not thinking it through. We’ve already had one federal judge in Florida rule Obamacare unconstitutional. That’s been fast-tracked,” Dooley said. “We should not take steps which undercut that case.”
Dooley argues having the state begin implementing Obamacare would harm the case in the court system.
“The Justice Department attorneys will say, ‘Look, your Honor, they say this law is unconstitutional, but they are implementing it,'” Dooley said. “Judges will look and see that this is being implemented, and we just felt that it was damaging to the state’s lawsuit. I would encourage activists in every state to oppose their state setting up these exchanges.”
Job Loss Worries Aired
Meadows—one of the bill’s cosponsors—said the state wanted to be out in front of the problem, offering its own solution instead of having the federal government involved.
“I don’t know anybody who is for the health care law,” Meadows said. “I don’t have anybody who is for that in my district.”
Meadows said he was mindful of potential job losses which could harm the insurance industry.
“I sell health insurance for a living, so I’ve got a little bit different perspective, because if things keep going the way they are, in 2014 I will be out of business. So I would like to see us do something that keeps 6,000 agents employed,” Meadows said. “If they can be involved in the exchange in any way, whether it’s offering the products that the exchange offered, I’m fine.”
Disagreement About Federal Exchange
The interest of insurance agents is not the only rationale for the bill, Meadows said.
“The reason for that bill is that if we don’t have an exchange by a period certain, and I think it’s January 1st of 2013, if we don’t have an exchange set up, we will come under the federal exchange,” said Meadows. “Do I want the federal folks handling our exchange, or do I want us handling our exchange? I want us to, and that’s what [the bill] did.”
But Dooley pointed out any exchange set up under Obama’s law would have to meet a significant number of guidelines and restrictions to pass muster with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and is thus properly understood not as a state entity but as “an exchange permanently supervised by the federal government.”
“We believe that Obamacare is unconstitutional. Our governor has gone on record as saying he believes it’s unconstitutional, and you do not fight a winning battle if you’re going to fight with one hand and wave the white flag of surrender with the other hand,” Dooley said. “We want them to focus all attention that the state can on defeating or repealing Obamacare.”
Bill Could Be Reintroduced
Meadows recognizes the controversy over the constitutionality of Obama’s law, but he says the courts will move slowly and the legislature should not presume it will be overturned.
“The only other way you get rid of it is to put Republicans in the U.S. Senate or you change Presidents. Since I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me when that’s going to take place, I as a representative have to do what I think is going to take care of Georgia best,” Meadows said.
Meadows also claimed the bill contained language stating if Obama’s law were to be found unconstitutional, “This all goes away,” as he put it. An examination of the legislative language, however, does not appear to support that statement.
In any case, according to Galloway, the legislation is likely to be reintroduced in 2012.
“It would be presumptuous of me to speak for Gov. Deal, but I think if Obamacare is not overturned, we will see this exchange bill again next year,” Galloway said.
Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.
Text of HB 476: