Ralph Hudgens (Special photo)
ATLANTA — With crowded, high-profile contests for a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship, most Georgia voters are not focused on who’s running for the state insurance commissioner post.
The party primaries are Tuesday, but early in-person voting began on April 28. Once the nominees are chosen, the insurance commissioner race is expected to attract more voter interest. The general election is set for Nov. 4.
Ralph Hudgens is the incumbent commissioner and is running unopposed on the Republican ballot. Keith Heard and Elizabeth (Liz) Johnson – two longtime insurance agents – are competing for the Democratic nomination.
Now that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has made health coverage a hot political issue, both Democratic contenders are emphasizing their firsthand insurance experience as a key qualification for the state position.
But Hudgens said he doesn’t believe such experience makes the two challengers qualified. “Being an insurance agent really is not important,” Hudgens told Georgia Health News in an interview. In his view, the insurance commissioner position is “about knowing how to be an administrator.”
Hudgens said his experience as an entrepreneur is what will give him an edge in the upcoming general election. “I’ve got the experience of being able to make decisions and have a successful company. And neither of them, to my knowledge, have that experience,” he said.
But candidate Heard noted that in his capacity as an insurance agent, he also owned and operated a small business.
Calls to Liz Johnson’s official campaign number are answered by a pleasant voice that thanks the caller and continues, “We are committed to affordable health care
throughout the state of Georgia. Liz Johnson will put Georgians first.” She has not responded to multiple interview requests.
Johnson is a longtime Democratic Party activist based in Statesboro, where she has been an insurance agent, and this is not her first run for public office.
It’s not surprising that Johnson’s recorded message emphasizes her position on health care, because the contest for the state insurance commissioner job will probably focus on the Affordable Care Act.
Both Hudgens and Heard have said the biggest public health issue facing Georgia is its high number of uninsured people. An estimated 1.8 million Georgia residents did not have health insurance as of Jan. 1.
Heard sees the ACA as a solution. “We have the opportunity in this state to afford those Georgians good insurance and get them covered,” said Heard, who represented Athens in the state legislature from 1993 to 2012. “We have to be concerned about our fellow man when they don’t go to the doctor in fear of, ‘Well, I can’t pay for it.’”
He supports expansion of the state’s Medicaid program under the ACA, giving coverage to more low-income people. Expansion is optional for the states, and Georgia has declined to do it. Heard said he finds it hard to believe that Georgians don’t want their neighbors to have such coverage.
He also said too much energy has been focused on thwarting Obamacare. “I’m not here to debate the law,” Heard says. “The Affordable Care Act is the law of this land.”
Hudgens has other ideas about how more Georgians can gain health coverage. In an interview, he proposed separating people with pre-existing medical conditions from everyone else in an insurance risk pool.
“We can go and create a national high-risk pool and let the government subsidize them,” Hudgens said. “But let them go back to private insurance and let them choose the benefits they want, instead of everyone having to take the benefits that the Affordable Care Act mandates.”
Hudgens, who was then a state legislator, criticized the ACA when he was first running for commissioner in 2010. Since becoming commissioner, he has gained national attention for speaking out against the law.
“The problem is Obamacare,’’ Hudgens told a GOP gathering last year. “Let me tell you what we’re doing: Everything in our power to be an obstructionist.’’
He has since clarified that in his state position, he has little impact on the implementation of a federal law.
Heard’s response to Hudgens’ comments: “I would not handle it that way. That’s the way he chose to do it, and he has a right to do that.”
Elected officials are responsible for upholding the law, Heard said. “That doesn’t mean that we agree with everything about the law. But if there are those things that we don’t agree with, let’s work together and make meaningful change so that we can benefit individuals in this state.”
The ACA is a success despite the well-publicized problems launching the insurance exchange last year, Heard said. “People, for the first time, are being able to go to the doctor and take care of problems that they know they have, and that to me is a success in itself if nothing else.”
With both Democratic candidates and Hudgens talking about health insurance, it’s easy to lose sight of the state insurance commissioner’s other duties.
“The office I hold is a lot more than just being the insurance commissioner,” Hudgens said. In addition to regulating insurance, the commissioner oversees the enforcement of
fire and safety regulations as well as industrial loans.
Hudgens said he also focuses on protecting Georgia residents from insurance fraud.
Recently he learned that an insurance agent was cashing premium checks without doing the necessary paperwork to give the client insurance coverage, he said. “I got him, called the police, and got him toted off in handcuffs, because he was robbing the citizens of Georgia,” Hudgens says. “And that’s my job — to protect the citizens of Georgia.”
Despite the importance of fraud and fire safety, though, Georgia’s insurance race should set up a stark contrast on the issue that has dominated politics nationally: the Affordable Care Act.
Alyssa Stafford is with Georgia Health News.