Perdue unveils plan to reduce uninsured

ATLANTA - Small businesses not currently offering health coverage to their workers would be able to buy into a state-subsidized insurance plan under an initiative unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The governor said he will ask the General Assembly this winter for up to $20 million to launch the program by the beginning of fiscal year 2009 next July.

The state money would be combined with federal funds and contributions from small business owners and employee premiums to cover uninsured low- and middle-income workers.

"I'm a value buyer," Perdue said during a news conference at the Capitol. "A $20 million investment from the state leverages into a $182 million total investment."

Georgia's uninsured population has climbed steadily in recent years to 1.7 million, as the soaring costs of health care drive premiums ever higher. As a result, more and more small businesses have dropped their health insurance plans, forcing employees to purchase expensive individual coverage or do without.

David Raynor, Georgia director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said a recent survey found that only 47 percent of the state chapter's member businesses were offering health coverage to their workers.

"This is a huge issue," he said.

Under Perdue's plan, sole proprietors or businesses with 50 employees or fewer would be eligible to buy state-subsidized coverage.

Eligible employees would have to work at least 20 hours per week and earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level or roughly $62,000 a year for a family of four.

Those with higher incomes could take part by dividing the premiums with their employer.

No worker could participate who already has access to health insurance through their employer, a spouse's employer or another government insurance program.

Perdue said that of the approximately 380,000 uninsured Georgians who would be eligible for the program, the initial investment would extend coverage to more than 30,000.

Participating businesses would be required to offer at least a "benchmark plan" with benefits comparable to those provided by the State Health Benefit Plan, which covers Georgia teachers and state employees.

Perdue said additional options may include a less expensive basic plan with the same coverage requirements as a bill the General Assembly passed two years ago or a high-deductible plan providing catastrophic coverage.

The governor said the state Department of Community Health plans to seek a federal waiver to authorize the drawdown of federal funds and the expanded coverages.

Representatives of groups that have worked on behalf of low-income and uninsured Georgians welcomed Perdue's proposal.

"I'm so glad that the governor has seen how important it is for people who are working hard to have access to secure health care," Atlanta-based consumer health advocate Linda Lowe said.

But some of the governor's fellow Republicans sent signals Tuesday that he may have trouble getting the initiative through the legislature.

"I like to be able to leverage our dollars to help small businesses and the self-employed," said Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, vice chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. "(But) I'm always nervous about anything if we don't know what it can ultimately cost."

House Rules Committee Chairman Earl Ehrhart went further, predicting that the $20 million being sought by Perdue could soar to five times that within five years.

"He's talking about an entitlement program for people making $60,000 a year," said Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs.

But Perdue said something has to be done to reduce the growing costs of uncompensated health care that hospitals and other providers are being forced to absorb.

"It's either pay me now or pay me later in health care," he said. "What we're trying to do is spend the money up front, so more people can be insured."