State lawmakers offer modest fixes for rural Georgia’s health crisis but ignore largest solution
March Madness kicked off last week, but what may be the true ‘sadness’ of March is the legislature ignoring a huge and impactful policy solution to the escalating healthcare crisis in rural Georgia. The 2018 Georgia legislative session is nearing its close on March 29, and state lawmakers have discussed several ideas this year to improve rural Georgians’ access to health care. Yet the single biggest solution, a policy that would bring back 3 billion federal dollars a year (yes, that is billion with a ‘B’) to put health insurance cards in more Georgians’ pockets, has been conspicuously absent from the conversations at the State Capitol.
More than 5000 volunteers in 70 local conferences across Georgia live out the mission of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and respond to the needs of people in their local communities; people who sometimes catch a tough break. All too often these moments of need are caused by a financial crisis stemming from health care costs, particularly in rural communities where health insurance coverage remains out of reach for many. Over the next few years, the uninsured rate in rural Georgia could rise to an estimated 25 percent or higher. With so many Georgians lacking health coverage and unable to afford care, it’s unfortunate but not surprising that six rural hospitals have closed in since 2013, and many others are financially vulnerable.
State lawmakers recognize the growing health care crisis in rural Georgia and established the House Rural Development Council last year to investigate the many challenges facing rural communities. The Council recommended a number of sensible ideas, and improving health care quickly emerged as the top priority. State Representative Terry England, who co-chaired the council, noted that health care was the “No. 1 topic we’ve heard throughout the state.”
So given that everyone acknowledges there is a problem that needs to be addressed, what have state lawmakers done so far this session to address that top priority? One bill moving through the legislative process proposes several ideas floated by the House Rural Development Council, including streamlined medical billing, grants to help rural physicians pay malpractice insurance premiums and expansion of a tax credit program that raised a modest $10 million last year for rural hospitals. These ideas are good and will hopefully make it a little easier to access and afford health care in rural communities.
But what about that multibillion-dollar solution, the one that would help hundreds of thousands of working Georgians afford health insurance? Surely that potential solution to a universally acknowledged compelling need received serious deliberation under the Gold Dome? Well, sadly, the most significant health care solution on the table seems to have received the least amount of attention by state leaders this year.
A bill was introduced this session that proposes a solution and a new major idea to help many thousands of Georgians afford and access health care by tapping into use-it-or-lose-it federal money. The bill is unlikely to become law at this point in session, but it could jumpstart a serious conversation about the best strategy to improve health coverage in rural Georgia and stabilize hospitals struggling with high uncompensated care costs.
It is very promising that this bill to boost health coverage was assigned to the State House Appropriations committee for consideration, a committee chaired by someone who has seen Georgia’s rural health crisis firsthand: the honorable Rep. Terry England. Unfortunately though, the bill has yet to receive a hearing. So while Georgia’s rural health crisis deepens by the day, state leaders have not begun the important conversation about the structural causes of that crisis and the largest single solution available.
When our Vincentians visit with those we help in times of need, we offer what support we can. But we don’t just pay a bill or alleviate the immediate need. We know the critical importance of facilitating an honest conversation about what prompted the need and the often difficult steps that will have to be taken to not only achieve stability, but get on the road to self-sufficiency. Those conversations can be difficult, but Vincentians honor the dignity of each person by not only being generous with our support, but more importantly being clear-eyed and realistic about how to get people get back on their feet.
Likewise, if we want to address the crisis in rural healthcare in Georgia, we must confront the underlying health insurance coverage problem and discuss overarching proposals to help people afford health care. Rural Georgia can’t afford for us to avoid tough policy conversations and ignore the biggest solution on the table.
The time to act is now because this problem will not go away on its own. Let’s get a serious discussion going and if we can’t get a bill passed this year let’s get set up to make this a top priority for the next session.