A coalition of consumer advocates, health care providers, nonprofits and other groups urged Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday to reconsider extending health care coverage to 650,000 poor Georgians by expanding the state’s Medicaid program.
Deal has remained steadfast in his refusal to broaden Medicaid, saying the state can’t afford to expand the ailing government health program as it currently operates. Medicaid already faces a nearly $400 million budget hole.
But supporters say Georgia can’t afford to forgo the large infusion of federal funds that will go to states moving forward with expansion. In Georgia, that could amount to $40 billion over the next decade.
“Georgia does not exist in isolation,” said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future. “We’re going to be at a big disadvantage if we don’t (expand).”
It would hurt Georgia’s economy and make the state’s health care system less attractive to potential new businesses, she said. Zeldin added that there’s a good chance Georgia will eventually move forward with the expansion as the political climate shifts. Her group is among 60 that have formed a coalition called Cover Georgia to promote the expansion of Medicaid.
The governor’s office estimates the expansion would cost Georgia $4.5 billion over 10 years, a price tag Deal says the state simply can’t afford. Deal and other conservative policy-makers have advocated turning Medicaid into a block grant program, which would limit federal funding to a lump sum but come with fewer restrictions on how states must operate the program.
Medicaid currently covers 1.7 million low-income Georgians, mostly pregnant women, children, the elderly and disabled.
Zeldin said the Medicaid expansion is quickly becoming less of a partisan issue, with Republican governors who once opposed it now proposing that their states agree to an expansion. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law last year made the expansion optional for states.
A spokeswoman for Deal said Tuesday that the governor’s stance on the expansion hasn’t changed.
While providing health care to uninsured Georgians is important, expanding Medicaid in its current form is not sustainable, said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a fiscally conservative think tank.
“We obviously can’t afford the program we have right now,” McCutchen said.
Expansion supporters say, however, that Georgians with health coverage are already paying the cost of caring for the uninsured in the form of higher hospital bills and insurance premiums as hospitals charge more to those who can pay to make up what they lose. Local governments also pay tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to safety-net hospitals that lose money caring for large numbers of patients without coverage.
A family of three in Georgia with an average income pays roughly $1,200 each year for the cost of caring for the uninsured, said Bill Custer, one of the state’s top health care economists and a professor at Georgia State University. About one in five Georgians doesn’t have health insurance.
“For the average taxpayer, the Medicaid expansion is actually a good deal,” he said.
A recent study conducted by Custer estimates expanding Medicaid would generate 70,000 new jobs statewide and give Georgia’s economy an $8.2 billion boost each year. It would also increase state and local tax revenue by more than $275 million annually.