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Local officials react to new bill

ALBANY -- On Sunday evening, Congress approved legislation officials say will extend health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and crack down on insurance company abuses.

On Monday, those living and representing Southwest Georgia expressed mixed feelings about it.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, announced Saturday that he would support the bill. He issued a statement Sunday after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation.

"Today is an historic day in the history of our country," Bishop said. "This evening I cast a vote that I believe will have a significant impact on improving the lives of Southwest Georgians now and into the future. I believe that when the dust of this vigorous debate settles, and people actually see and learn what is in this bill and how it affects their lives, there will be even more widespread support for it."

Jennie Gibson, Bishop's press secretary, said Monday afternoon that the representative had received a lot of positive feedback from constituents since the vote. The House voted 219-212 to approve the Senate-passed health care bill.

In the Second Congressional District, it is estimated that more than 83,000 uninsured residents will receive health insurance coverage under this bill, Bishop's office says. In addition, there are 12,100 small business owners in the area who will qualify for tax credits to help employees afford health care.

Both of Georgia's U.S. senators issued statements opposing the bill, which they voted against last December.

"Today (Sunday's) action by the House ignores the will of most Georgians and most Americans, who have expressed strong, vocal opposition to this deeply flawed, unpopular health care bill," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Atlanta, said. "This is the height of political arrogance. Americans need a Congress and a president that are focused on fixing our struggling economy, not engineering a government takeover of our health care system."

"The American people have spoken out against this health care bill and it's unfortunate that the president and Democrats have chosen to ignore their concerns and force passage," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, said. "Cuts to Medicare, tax increases and special deals do not represent meaningful reform. This bill is a political victory that will only make health care more expensive."

The House also voted 220-211 to pass a health care reconciliation package, which makes changes to the Senate bill through the budget reconciliation process. Before that can happen, the Senate bill passed by the House Sunday must be signed into law by President Obama, who plans to sign it into law today.

FreedomWorks and Albany Tea Party member Donna Driskell said that with the expected loss of jobs because of the expense of new employer insurance requirements, the working poor will again be forced to bear a disproportionate burden of a social "fix" -- and that costs to the nation and individuals will outstrip current Democratic estimates.

"Last night's House vote, which sealed the beginning of the government takeover of the health care industry, was disappointing if not unexpected," she said Monday. "It is a great loss for the American people, not only in the substance of the bill -- which will cost jobs and result in ever more national debt -- but also in the process of its passage. We cannot even begin to count the number of special deals that according to published reports went into corralling votes from Democratic congressmen.

"The bill is undoubtedly unconstitutional due to, among other reasons, its requirements that individuals purchase health insurance, whether they want it or not, and the unequal treatment of states. The greatest tragedy is that the bill is not really equipped to accomplish its stated goal of extending coverage to chronically uninsured Americans and reducing health care costs. The benefits of the plan will not begin for nearly four years, leaving the truly indigent and needy without a workable solution for that period."

State Rep. Mike Keown, R-Coolidge, who hopes to win the GOP nomination to oppose Bishop in November, said, "Sanford Bishop is too out-of-touch to understand what this bill will do to the people he is supposed to represent. Most of us in Soutwest Georgia have been waiting for Bishop to wake up and do the right thing, but last night he showed us he doesn't care what we think. I find it hard to believe he even knows what he voted for."

Keown contends that the changes to Medicaid alone will cost Georgia taxpayers at least $1 billion more annually, while impacts on military personnel and their families are not understood.

"The bill is too expensive," he said. "It will raise taxes, kill jobs in Southwest Georgia, push our country further into debt, and force new government mandates on states and small businesses. At a time when we have record unemployment in Georgia this bill is wrong for Georgia and America. When the voters of Southwest Georgia send Sanford back home in November, I will vote to repeal this law."

Eric Riggle, spokesman for Palmyra Medical Center, said that the hospital's owner, Hospital Corporation of America, was still working Monday on "talking points" on the matter.

"I don't think we have a direction on that yet," he said Monday.

Phoebe Putney Health System CEO Joel Wernick said that while the bill may ease many impoverished regions' financial and access woes, there is still much to be seen in regards to the legislation's impact.

"There are still a lot of details that are not self-evident; it will take us awhile to see what's there and what's not there," he said. "I suspect it will impact a lot of folks differently."

How the individual states handle the situation will have a significant role in the process, Wernick said.

"It's a broad-based bill," he explained. "There are 50 states in the country and all 50 states do things differently."

The reconciliation bill still must be voted on by the Senate. The budget reconciliation process may only be used for changes that are budget-related, meaning they affect revenue or spending. Changes involving strict policy matters that do not have a budgetary impact cannot be addressed through reconciliation. Republican senators have said they will challenge parts of the reconciliation package as being out of order, and that they will attempt to add a number of amendments to the legislation to slow its progress.

The legislation includes $644 billion in tax increases and over $525 billion in Medicare cuts for seniors. Additionally, most Americans will likely see a 10-13 percent increase in individual premiums as a result of the bill.

The majority of Georgia's representatives in the House -- including two Democrats, Jim Marshall of Macon and John Barrow of Savannah, and all seven Republicans -- voted against the bill. Democrats who voted for the bill were Bishop and Reps. David Scott of Atlanta, John Lewis of Atlanta and Hank Johnson of Lithonia.