Officials seek input on health reform

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- In order to get an idea of how business owners in Georgia feel about the Affordable Health Care for America Act, state officials are seeking input from the impacted communities -- including Albany.

Officials from the governor's office and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce held a small business listening session Wednesday with community leaders at the Albany Welcome Center for that purpose.

The session primary consisted of a presentation from Blake Fulenwider, the health policy adviser from the governor's office, as well as feedback from community leaders -- which included elected officials, insurance brokers and business owners from throughout Southwest Georgia.

"We want to hear what your concerns are," Fulenwider said.

Statistics from the Georgia Health Policy Center shown at the presentation indicate that the share of non-elderly Georgians with employer-sponsored-only coverage in 2009 was at 52 percent.

Research has also shown that private and employer-sponsored coverage rates are declining.

"Health care insurance coverage has continued to decline in the state," Fulenwider said. "We want that trend reversed."

Almost all of Georgia's business firms are considered small businesses. The law has faced opposition in the state in part because it presents obstacles for small business owners, such as the inability to self-insure and higher administrative costs.

The legislation calls for all states, by Jan. 1, 2014, to either design a health benefits exchange geared for the individual market, design a Small Business Health Options (SHOP) exchange for the small group market or defer to the federal government.

"The focus of the Obama administration has been on the individual market side of things," Fulenwider said. "The restrictions (for the individual market exchange) are much more strict than SHOP."

The SHOP exchange, for employees of businesses with 100 or fewer workers, can facilitate the purchase of qualified health plans by qualified employers. The state would have the option to limit this to businesses with 50 or fewer workers until 2016.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is setting minimum essential benefits for exchange plans, for which the requirements are currently being developed.

Georgia can make additional requirements, but there is a catch.

"If the state goes above the minimum requirement, the state has to pick up the cost," Fulenwider said.

There is still a number of factors in the air that will determine how Georgia will be impacted by the law in regards to SHOP exchanges -- including premium billing and aggregation.

"We are waiting for federal guidance," Fulenwider said. "There is a lot that has to be determined."

The idea, Fulenwider said, will be to do something that will protect Georgians, whether that means doing nothing or designing an exchange. Several community leaders voiced their opposition to the legislation in terms of how it will impact the state's physician shortages and premium costs.

Georgia has added itself to the list of states involved in a federal lawsuit to fight the law. Even so, state officials are still actively addressing how the state's residents will be impacted by it.

"We can't bank on (the courts favoring the bill's opposition)," Fulenwider warns. "We are on a tight deadline. Designing something that will fit Georgians will be a tight squeeze.

"We are designing for Georgia to be in the best defensive position. This is not something we want to take lightly."

On behalf of Southwest Georgia, those at the Albany Welcome Center meeting opted for the state to develop a SHOP exchange.

Deborah Bowie, senior director of public policy and communications for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, said she felt the meeting accomplished its overall goal.

"The biggest reason these sessions are helpful is because it gives local business leaders an opportunity to speak on the impact the law will have on businesses," she said following the meeting. "It gives the community an opportunity to be involved in the process.

"What I saw here was a group of vocal, active people."

The session held in Albany was one of two such meetings so far. A listening session was previously conducted in Columbus, and another is scheduled to take place in Dalton on Tuesday.

Additional information on the law can be found by visiting healthreform.georgia.gov.