Lawmakers express displeasure over health plan

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers Tuesday grilled the state's new health chief regarding recent disruptions in insurance coverage for teachers and state employees that resulted from decisions made before she took office.

Members of the legislature's budget committees from Southwest Georgia and the state's northwestern counties complained about the inadequate network of providers United Healthcare of Georgia brought to those areas when the State Health Benefit Plan hired them last fall in a cost-cutting move.

"There were not a lot of hospitals or doctors,'' Rep. Bob Hanner, D-Parrott, told Dr. Rhonda Medows, who took over as Georgia's community health commissioner in December, several weeks after United was hired.

"People were not only mad. They were frightened.''

"How could you approve a contract without having a network in place?'' asked Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg.

Members of the House and Senate appropriations committees raised the issue during the first of two days of hearings on the $18.6 billion budget proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue last week.

It was one of the few topics to generate many questions, as lawmakers heard mostly good news from the governor and state agency heads concerning their plans for $1.2 billion in additional tax collections the state is anticipating due to the recovering economy.

The state's switch to United caused a huge public outcry in the affected regions last November when many enrollees discovered that their doctors weren't in the company's network.

Only after the state awarded a contract to United did the Department of Community Health negotiate with the company to expand its network to include more doctors and hospitals serving those areas.

But by that time, the enrollment period for many enrollees was about to expire, threatening to leave them in the lurch.

"It should not have come down to the last week before enrollment started,'' Medows said. "There's probably enough blame to go around.''

Reacting to the episode, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation last week that would provide more oversight of the State Health Benefit Plan.

The bills call for the creation of a committee - either of legislators or plan enrollees - that would review various features of the state's health coverage and suggest improvements.

The legislation also is drawing support from Republicans, at least those who represent parts of the state affected by the switch to United.

"We need some kind of oversight,'' Rynders said. "We need to send the message to every teacher and every employee in this state that whatever happened won't happen again.''

The budget panels also heard Tuesday from state School Superintendent Kathy Cox, who outlined a series of education spending initiatives Perdue presented to the legislature last week.

Today, the state university system Board of Regents will present the governor's plans for higher education.