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Cagle enters health care debate

ATLANTA - Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on Thursday became the latest state politician with a plan to reduce the number of Georgians without health insurance.

During a luncheon speech, the Gainesville-area Republican announced two initiatives aimed at curbing health care costs and helping consumers shop for health coverage.

"Unfortunately, more and more Georgians are going without insurance and basic health care services," Cagle said. "We must find ways to meet the health care needs of all Georgians."

One of the lieutenant governor's initiatives would attempt to rein in the costs of emergency room care by setting up "safety net clinics" to care for indigent patients who don't have emergency illnesses or injuries.

He proposed trying out the concept with a pilot program of five clinics that would be financed with state grants and private donations and be staffed by volunteer physicians.

Bert Brantley, spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the governor is anxious to work with Cagle on the issue.

"Governor Perdue shares the lieutenant governor's concerns for the high price we pay when uninsured Georgians use overcrowded emergency rooms for primary care services," Brantley said.

Perdue introduced a health care initiative of his own two weeks ago when he unveiled a proposal to help small businesses extend health insurance coverage to their workers.

The second initiative Cagle floated on Thursday would establish a Web-based information clearinghouse that would allow consumers to shop for both medical services and health insurance.

They would be able to choose from an array of services and health plans displayed by doctors and insurers.

Like legislation that is being pushed by Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, the proposal is aimed at putting consumers - not doctors or insurance companies - in charge of health care decisions.

"For too long, consumers have taken a back seat in choosing which health care to purchase," Cagle said. "It's time to move individuals into the driver's seat."

Allen Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based research organization that supports a strong social safety net, said the interest Cagle and Perdue are showing in shrinking the ranks of the uninsured is a good sign.

The 1.7 million Georgians without health insurance is the fifth highest in the nation. But Essig questioned whether the Republicans' proposals would have a major effect on the problem.

"I'm not sure that they're not dabbling around the edges," he said. "I haven't seen the bold proposal that deals with the issue fundamentally."