Georgia Senate hopefuls eye health care, transportation and schools

Before Tom Price was appointed to be health and human services secretary, before he was a member of the U.S. House and chairman of the House Budget Committee and before he was a state senator, he was a doctor.

In east Cobb County and Sandy Springs, a subregion of Price’s former congressional district, an election for an open state Senate seat that has drawn wide interest from the medical community serves as a testament to Price’s influence in the region.

The Roswell Republican’s ascension triggered a domino effect. Price’s resignation from Congress opened a seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District that 18 candidates quickly sought to fill. Judson Hill’s entrance into the race required him to resign from the state Senate, prompting a second special election also on Tuesday.

While the congressional election has received national attention as an early test of President Donald Trump’s popularity, candidates seeking to represent state Senate District 32 are sticking to what resonates with their community: traffic, education and health care.

A doctor’s race

Of the eight Senate candidates, three are physicians: Democrat Bob Wiskind and Republicans Roy Daniels and Kay Kirkpatrick.

Along with Gus Makris, a Republican and tax attorney, Wiskind, Daniels and Kirkpatrick round out the top fundraisers in the race and dwarf the other competition. This is no coincidence.

A candidate wins an election, former state Rep. Chuck Clay said, through some combination of spending money, holding key commitments and having an ability to identify a base that will turn out to vote, and anyone who comes from a medical background certainly has an advantage in District 32.

Price was an orthopedic surgeon before joining Congress, and Hill garnered support from the medical community by promising tort reform. Their base remained loyal while they were in office.

The Senate candidates are focusing on health care at the state level. After Republicans in the U.S. House failed to agree on a repeal and replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act, the attention turned to the future of insurance exchanges in the state and potential changes to Georgia’s Medicaid program.

Marian Battle, an educator at Kennesaw State University who lives in the district, said the state health care system is her primary concern.

“I’m hoping whoever wins can find a solution,” said Battle, referring to the cost and access to treatment.

Wiskind, a pediatrician, views expansion of Medicaid as a way to cover more Georgians and save rural hospitals.

He said the state needs to find ways to provide incentives to “physicians, medical practices and patients to do value-based care — that is, care that is not only effective, but cost-effective.”

With more than $74,000 in cash contributions, mostly from doctors and medical special-interest groups, Wiskind is the leading Democratic fundraiser in the race.

Daniels, a physician, and Kirkpatrick, a retired orthopedic surgeon, also drew financial support from doctors and medical political action committees.

Daniels, who raised nearly $53,000 in contributions, said the state’s priority should be obtaining more control over Medicaid to help increase market competition.

According to campaign reports, Kirkpatrick has received almost $270,000 in donations from 185 contributors, mostly from the medical fields.

In addition to her focus on health care, Kirkpatrick advocates for public safety disaster preparedness to address the heroin and opioid epidemic.

Traffic control

While traffic has long been a grievance in Atlanta, the collapse of a bridge on I-85 exposed the congested region’s vulnerabilities — once again reminding Atlanta commuters of their dependence on vehicular transportation and the limitations of state infrastructure.

“The system should not shut down because we lose one road,” said Matt Campbell, a Republican in the race who has worked in transportation.

That fear has been exacerbated in Cobb County, where SunTrust Park, the new home of the Braves franchise, opened Friday.

“I’m a big baseball fan. I’ve been to every opening day for the Braves since I’ve lived in Atlanta,” Wiskind said. “But I live a mile and a half from the new stadium, and I’m petrified of traveling there.”

He said cities and counties need to coordinate efforts so individuals, through a combination of roads, public transportation and commuting alternatives, can get from place to place.

A May 2014 study suggested a sold-out SunTrust Park, with its 41,000 seats, would add an additional 20,000 cars to the Cumberland area’s already-packed roads. While Atlanta commuters flocked to MARTA after the highway collapse, its reach for the northwestern region is limited.

Instead of expanding rail lines, the state has invested in an $834 million toll lane project along I- 75 and I-575 as its solution for relieving interstate traffic in the northwest suburbs that form much of District 32.

Makris commended those efforts and said while the “dollars and cents” of a long-term solution remain to be seen, he has “the political will to address the problem.”

To Kirkpatrick, the problem stems from resistance to cultural change.

“We all want people to get out of their cars except for our car,” she said. “That’s really the problem we have in east Cobb.”

School choices

Nearly two dozen schools in Cobb County were listed among the 187 best in the state as identified by the governor.

“Education is one of the things that made east Cobb a great place to live,” said Amy Stevens, who attended a candidates forum Wednesday

But ideas about how to maintain success and encourage innovation divide candidates.

Makris said he wants to change the way money is spread across and within school districts by funding individual students rather than school programs and allocating money from nonteaching staff toward students and teachers.

Local control is key to Kirkpatrick, “but not at the expense of losing the excellence that we have in our public schools in the district.”

And for Wiskind, charter schools provide opportunity for students but should be held to the same degree of transparency and accountability as other schools. Vouchers, which allow students to attend schools outside their assigned zone, drain money away from public schools, he said.

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