ATLANTA — For three days last week, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens put Georgia into the center of the political storm over Obamacare, and as is usually the case with politics, each side felt enriched by the experience.
In what may be the clearest sign that Hudgens intends to run for re-election next year, he sought an excuse to avoid approving health premiums he considers high and likely unpopular with voters. Seven insurers submitted premiums for the plans to be sold in Georgia’s health exchange for individuals and small groups, and Hudgens didn’t want to OK them.
Under Georgia’s “file and use” law, health insurers submit the premiums they intend to charge, and they are free to use them unless the insurance commissioner deems them excessive. He has greater freedom to reject other types of premiums, but not medical.
FIRST, Hudgens sought cover from outside actuaries. They reviewed the proposals and concluded they were justifiable to meet the mandates in the federal law, except that one company was 11 percent higher than necessary.
He got the actuaries’ reports two days before Wednesday’s deadline for him to approve the premiums so they can go on sale Oct. 1 in the exchange the federal government will operate here.
“When the company says this is what they need and outside actuaries say ‘These are reasonable; they’re justified; they’re needed,’ who am I to say, ‘Nah, you can’t do that?’” he said.
So, in another effort for political cover, he asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for an emergency deadline extension and to offer her reasons for him to deny the premiums.
No political lightweight herself as a former Kansas insurance commissioner and governor, Sebelius didn’t take the bait. She simply didn’t respond. Instead, administration officials got on the phone to spin reporters by accusing Hudgens of a political stunt.
HUDGENS made himself vulnerable to the charge by citing an example he admitted was extreme of premiums 198 percent higher than what a healthy person could buy today.
However, Morris News reported in July about the proposed premiums and the example of a 45 percent increase for a middle-age couple with three children covered by Blue Cross compared to what a similar policy would cost today.
The whole point of Obamacare, White House Domestic Policy Advisor Cecilia Munoz told reporters, is to provide insurance to the unhealthy who can’t get it now and to give taxpayer subsidies to those who can’t afford it. “The health care law is also improving the affordability of health care,” she said, adding that HHS recently released a report finding the exchange premiums in 11 other states are nearly 20 percent lower than predicted.
“And that doesn’t even take into account the tax credits that many Americans are going to receive to make insurance more affordable under this law.”
SO, SHE implied, it doesn’t matter how high the premiums soar because subsidies will keep them affordable.
Then Aetna decided that it and its new subsidiary Coventry wouldn’t participate in Georgia’s exchange after all, leaving Alliant, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and Peach State. But residents in some parts of the state will now have no choice in health plans in the exchange.
In the end, Hudgens blinked and wound up approving the premiums, giving ammunition to a potential challenger, the last thing he wanted to do.
Still, he gained national exposure and even landed on a few talk shows as a defiant Obamacare opponent and staunch conservative.
Obamacare supporters also gained political capital. It fanned the fires of their enthusiasm.
ON FRIDAY, advocacy groups Protect Your Care and Americans United for Change held a conference call with reporters to announce joint efforts “to go on the offensive on Obamacare in Georgia.” They promised to hire veteran Democratic political consultants in Georgia and other Republican states starting during Congress’ August recess, working along with Planned Parenthood and large labor unions.
“We’re going to be running an aggressive communications operation nationally and in states to fight back against Tea Party extremists who want to take away people’s health care benefits,” said Eddie Vale of Protect Your Care.
“This will help give air cover to the crucial grassroots groups that will be signing people up for Obamacare benefits when open enrollment begins in two months.”
Expect to hear plenty from both sides in those next two months.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Serviceand has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 589-8424.