Bill aims to overhaul health insurance in Georgia

ATLANTA - Only a dramatic overhaul of Georgia's health insurance system would reduce the ranks of the state's 1.7 million uninsured, a Republican state senator declared Tuesday.

But even as Sen. Judson Hill outlined legislation aiming at moving away from the current employer-based insurance system to one that emphasizes individual choice, critics said the bill wouldn't achieve its purpose.

The complex 60-page bill would offer tax incentives to encourage Georgians to buy insurance on their own instead of relying on employer-based group plans.

To help them make informed choices among competing plans, the measure would set up a Web site containing prices for medical services and prescriptions.

The legislation stems from a study committee chaired by Hill, R-Marietta, that met several times last year. During one of those sessions, the panel heard from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a longtime advocate of "consumer-driven'' health care.

Hill, who introduced his bill on Monday, said today's employer-based system fails to protect people who lose their jobs, while its reliance upon third-party payments encourages patients not to worry about the cost of care.

"Our current system is price blind, quality silent, and many incentives are in the wrong place,'' he said. "Georgians deserve to have a health care system that works.''

Hill said most Georgians who become uninsured are without coverage for less than a year, often because they have lost their jobs and are temporarily out of work.

He said those people, many of whom can afford health insurance, are the primary focus of his bill.

Under the legislation, people who make more than $60,000 a year would be allowed to deduct their medical expenses and claim a personal exemption on their state income taxes if they have at least minimum health coverage - a low-priced, high-deductible plan - or if they post a bond comparable to catastrophic coverage.

If they choose not to pursue either of those options, they wouldn't be entitled to the tax breaks.

Hill said those are powerful incentives to encourage Georgians who can afford their health care to pay for it.

"Not paying your bills is no longer an option in this state,'' he said. "If you make over $60,000 a year, you have to contribute something to your health care.''

But Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate, said the health savings accounts Hill's bill envisions wouldn't be either attractive or affordable to many uninsured Georgians.

She said most of the uninsured aren't making $60,000 a year, while many are older Georgians with chronic health problems who would consider insurance plans that offer only catastrophic coverage too risky.

"The people who are most likely to do that are younger people and people with the means to benefit from the tax break,'' Lowe said. "I'm afraid it would not make a dent in the number of uninsured.''

Hill said the market-based approach his legislation embodies may be the last chance to avoid a solution to the problem of the uninsured driven by government mandates.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts enacted mandatory universal health insurance last year, and other states - notably California - are considering such a move.

"Going to universal health care is not an option for me,'' Hill said. "I'm not ready to see that on the backs of taxpayers.''