By Valerie Baldowski and Jason A. Smith
Like the vote on the health-care reform bill that passed the U.S. House Representatives Sunday night and awaits President Barack Obama's signature, local reaction to the historic measure is sharply divided, mostly along party lines.
The bitterly debated, comprehensive bill would extend insurance coverage to nearly 32 million uninsured U.S. residents., through a complicated combination of cost controls, subsidies and mandates, according to the Associated Press. It is estimated to cost $848 billion over a 10-year period, but the cost, according to the Open Congress web site, would be fully offset by new taxes and revenues, and would actually reduce the deficit by $131 billion over the same period.
U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) was one of four Georgia Democrats voting for the bill among the 219 House members who voted to pass the legislation. Scott said he supported the measure, in order to reduce health-care costs, expand the private insurance marketplace for small businesses and the uninsured, and to stop insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
"To do nothing is expensive," he said. "Growth in annual health-insurance costs is outstripping average wage increases. Employer-sponsored health-insurance premiums have more than doubled in the last nine years -- a rate three times faster than cumulative wage increases."
U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) joined 212 House Republicans in voting against the bill. "This vote creates an expensive new entitlement that implements a government takeover of 1/6 of the American economy," Westmoreland said, on his web site Monday. "This law will raise taxes on all Americans, it will kill jobs in a lagging economy, it will put mandates on Americans and on businesses, it will put government in between doctors and their patients, it will raise the premiums of people who currently have insurance.
"The Democratic health-care bill will add $2.6 trillion in new spending," he said. "There's no free lunch."
Georgia's governor, Sonny Perdue, also a Republican, echoed Westmoreland's comments and said Sunday's passage will require either a tax hike or offsetting cuts to public safety, education and other core services of state government.
"Unfortunately, the United States House of Representatives last night [Sunday] chose politics over the will of the American people. The enormous upheaval of our health-care system was pushed through the House against the wishes of the majority of American families and businesses," said Perdue. "While this colossal unfunded mandate cripples our budget, I am even more concerned about the debilitating impact it will have on Georgia's small businesses. The extension of the Medicare tax on all non-wage income means that small business owners will see their top rate increased by 20 percent and investment income taxes increasing 60 percent."
One of the major employers in Henry County expected to be effected by the new legislation is the county hospital, Henry Medical Center (HMC). Charles Scott, president and chief executive officer of HMC, called the health-care bill a "very complex" piece of legislation. Some aspects of the bill, he said, are beneficial for hospitals and for patients, while others could be harmful.
"Millions of Americans, who are uninsured, will have access to health insurance," said Scott. "Hopefully, we will have patients seeking care sooner, when it's more cost-effective. For most people who lack health-care coverage, their only option is a hospital emergency room."
Scott added that the "most significant harm," which could result from the bill, is its potential impact on hospitals and health-care providers. "One of the biggest funding sources to pay for this bill is a reduction in Medicare payments to hospitals and their providers," he said. "Numerous other provisions will impact hospitals to a lesser degree -- some negative and some positive."
At Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale, CEO Clint Matthews declined to comment on the recent legislation on Monday, saying the hospital's administration does not yet have "an informed understanding" of how the new laws would impact the hospital. Bill Applegate, managing director of Marketing and Public Relations for Southern Regional, was also cautious, saying, "The outcome of this remains to be seen. We're just going to have to see how this works itself out."
Meanwhile, Jane Kidd, the chairperson of the Democratic Party of Georgia, was exuberant in her praise of the legislation's passage, releasing at statement that said, in part:
"Yesterday, we made history. After nearly a century of attempts by both political parties to reform the American health-care system, a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress made this dream come true. This is a victory for all of Georgia's citizens. With this landmark legislation, we will have a health-care system that works for Georgians, not insurance companies.
"Health-insurance reform will provide unprecedented protections for every American consumer and will put health-care decisions back into the hands of families, not insurance companies. American families will feel the impact of this legislation immediately. No longer will pre-existing conditions prevent someone from obtaining health insurance. No longer must parents forego job opportunities with higher wages in order to remain on their health plan. Insurance providers will not be able to drop your coverage should you get sick, while coverage will expand to cover an additional 32 million Americans. And these companies will no longer be permitted to kick students off of their parent's health insurance until they reach the age of 26."
Fellow Democrat, State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), echoed those sentiments. "There are so many people out there, who are uninsured. It's like playing Russian Roulette," said Jones, who owns five automobile dealerships employing a total of 180 people. Some of his employees have been forced to declare bankruptcy, because they cannot afford health-care insurance, he said.
"It's a momentous occasion for our country," said Jones. He said, as a businessman, paying for employee health care has become increasingly expensive for him. The premiums he pays for health insurance for his workers have increased every year between 15 percent and 23 percent, he said.
"I see it from the legislative end, and I also see it from a business perspective," he added.
One of his fellow legislators, who represents the view of many Republicans on this issue, does not share Jones' enthusiasm. State Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough) said the federal health-care legislation will be bad for businesses, because business owners will be forced to pay more to offer health-care coverage for employees. And the harmful effects will be felt far wider than the business community, Lunsford said. "It's going to [adversely] affect everybody," he said.
Staff writers Johnny Jackson and Joel Hall contributed to this article.