Laura Colbert, executive director of the advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future, said the mass health insurance loss “spotlights a real weakness in our health system.” “On the other…
Momentum builds to close Georgia’s coverage gap
The 2019 legislative session is now in full swing and the past few weeks have brought the introduction of two bills that would close Georgia’s coverage gap by expanding Medicaid.
HB 37: Expand Medicaid Now Act; enact and SB 36 are sponsored by Representative Bob Trammell and Senator Steve Henson respectively. Each bill expands Medicaid in Georgia as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act by increasing Medicaid eligibility for adults up to 138% of the federal poverty guidelines (FPL). This is equivalent to $17,236 annually for an individual and $29,435 for a family of three.
In addition, Governor Kemp has announced that his office will seek an 1115 Medicaid waiver. An 1115 waiver provides states with the ability to experiment with or tailor their Medicaid programs. Governor Kemp has not released details of the waiver, so its impact on consumers is uncertain. The waiver could close Georgia’s coverage gap, among other changes to Medicaid coverage. Legislation to allow Georgia’s Medicaid agency to seek an 1115 waiver is expected to be introduced soon by Senate Republicans.
Tell Governor Kemp and your legislators that you support putting a health insurance cards in the pockets of Georgians regardless of their income.
Consumer protection bills introduced
Surprise out‑of‑network medical billing is once again emerging as a prominent issue within the Georgia General Assembly. A surprise medical bill can occur when a consumer encounters an out-of-network (OON) provider at an in-network facility or in other circumstances. Two pieces of legislation have been introduced to address surprise billing and each attempts to resolve the issue in its own way.
HB 84: Insurance; provide for consumer protections regarding health insurance
Rep. Richard Smith, Chair of the House Insurance Committee, introduced HB 84 to increase transparency related to possible surprise medical bills. This bill sets disclosure requirements for health care providers, insurers, and hospitals. The legislation requires that information on billing, reimbursement, and arbitration of services must be provided to the consumer at their request. The bill also allows for an arbitration process between the consumer and the health care provider, the specifics of which would be determined by Georgia’s Department of Insurance. This bill currently sits in the House Insurance Committee and is in House second readers.
SB 56: Consumer Coverage and Protection for Out-of-Network Medical Care Act
Senator Chuck Hufstetler, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced SB 56 to address surprise out-of-network billing. This legislation disallows surprise billing in emergency situations under insurance plans issued after July 1, 2019. The bill contains similar transparency provisions to HB 84. For consumers who receive elective medical care after which they receive a surprise bill greater than $1000, the legislation makes available a mediation process through the Department of Insurance. This bill was referred to the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee.
Legislative calendar set
The schedule for the remainder of the legislative session has been set in HR 152. Crossover Day, the day that legislation must move from one chamber to the other in order to be considered in 2019, will fall on March 7th. The remaining sixteen legislative days will be broken up throughout March, culminating on Sine Die, the last day of the session, on April 2nd. The full calendar can be viewed here.
RSVP for Cover Georgia Day
Join us on Thursday, February 28th for Cover Georgia Day at the Capitol when we will ask our state legislators to close Georgia’s coverage gap by putting insurance cards in the pockets of low-income Georgians. This is the most important step that our elected officials can take to slow the growing opioid crisis, strengthen our state’s struggling rural health care system, and improve the health & finances of hardworking Georgia families. Take advantage of this opportunity to talk with your elected officials about closing Georgia’s coverage gap! RSVP today!
Can’t make it? Call or send an email to your state legislators asking them to put an insurance card in the pockets of all Georgians.
GHF has you covered
GHF will be monitoring legislative activity on a number of critical consumer health care topics. Along with our weekly legislative updates and timely analysis of bills, we have the tools you need to stay in touch with health policy under the Gold Dome.
This year’s program began with a personal story from consumer Lori Murdock, who bravely shared her experience struggling to manage a chronic disease without health insurance because she was caught in Georgia’s coverage gap. Lori’s experience illustrates the pressing need to provide health insurance to all Georgians regardless of income.
Following Lori was our bipartisan legislative panel. This year’s legislative panelists were:
Each panelist provided updates on emerging health care trends impacting Georgia and took questions from the audience about what health issues are likely to be taken up in the 2019 legislative session. Topics included Medicaid expansion, surprise out of network medical billing, access to mental health, network adequacy, Certificate of Need reform, social determinants of health, rural health care access, federal health care reform, and affordability of health care. All three panelists shared an optimistic vision for health care in this years legislative session.
This year’s key note speaker was Dr. David Blumenthal, President of the Commonwealth Fund. Dr. Blumenthal brought a wealth of knowledge and insight to our conversation about how innovations in health care and coverage can help us achieve better health outcomes for all Georgians. He led the discussion by comparing Georgia’s health outcomes to those of our neighboring states, and then provided an agenda for improvement. He emphasized that Georgia is unlikely to overcome poor health outcomes unless state leadership improves insurance coverage, as demonstrated by the Commonwealth Fund’s own research on Medicaid expansion’s impacts on population health. Dr. Blumenthal also shared the importance of investments in the social determinants of health for improving health outcomes and ultimately saving money. Dr. Blumenthal’s presentation can be accessed here and the Georgia scorecard from the Commonwealth Fund can be found here.
To see photos, review materials, and get more information about this year’s Health Care Unscrambled event, please visit the event page.
For more event pictures visit our Facebook photo album.
Georgians for a Healthy Future released its 2019 policy priorities at this morning’s ninth annual Health Care Unscrambled legislative breakfast. These annual priorities outline the issues that GHF believes are most pressing for Georgia consumers and are best addressed by the state legislature. GHF will work to move all of these issues forward by engaging state policy makers, consumers, and coalition partners throughout the legislative session and the remainder of the year.
1. Increase the number of Georgians with health insurance.
Georgia’s uninsured rate hit a historic low of 12.9% in 2016, but remains one of the highest uninsured rates in the country because Georgia has not accepted federal funds to cover low-income Georgians. Approximately 240,000 Georgians remain stuck in the resulting coverage gap. These Georgians do not qualify for Medicaid under current rules and do not earn enough money to qualify for financial help through the Marketplace. Georgians for a Healthy Future supports closing this gap by extending health insurance to all Georgians with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
2. Stabilize Georgia’s health insurance Marketplace
Almost half a million Georgians are enrolled in health care coverage through the health insurance Marketplace. While Georgia’s Marketplace has proven robust, the last two years have brought declines in enrollments, as federal policy changes have undercut its stability. Other states have taken steps to shore up their markets by implementing state reinsurance programs, instituting state-level consumer protections and enforcement mechanisms, limiting the sale of short-term junk plans, and investing in outreach & enrollment. Georgians for a Healthy Future supports policies that promote affordable, comprehensive coverage and a competitive, stable Marketplace.
3. Ensure access to care and financial protections for consumers purchasing private health insurance.
When consumers enroll in a health insurance plan, they should have reasonable access to all covered services in the plan. As narrow provider networks become more common, health care consumers are at increased risk of not being able to access the medical services and providers they need without going out-of-network and receiving surprise out-of-network medical bills. In 2015, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners adopted a network adequacy model act for states. Georgians for a Healthy Future supports using this act as a foundation to develop quantitative standards for Georgia. Georgians for a Healthy Future further supports legislation that will hold consumers harmless when consumers end up with out-of-network bills despite making appropriate efforts to stay in network or because inadequate provider networks require them to go out of network to receive the services that they need.
4. Set and enforce standards that provide for equitable coverage of mental health and substance use treatment services by health plans.
The 2008 passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (Parity Act) required that health plans cover behavioral health services as they would physical health services. The Parity Act is only meaningful if health plans are implementing it well, consumers and providers understand how it works, and there is appropriate oversight. GHF supports legislation that sets standards and oversight procedures to ensure that Georgia consumers receive the coverage for mental health and substance use disorder benefits to which they are entitled by law and for which they have paid.
5. Prevent nicotine use and addiction by young Georgians
Georgia has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country at just 37 cents per pack, which makes tobacco much more accessible to youth in Georgia than in many other states. Moreover, Georgia does not apply an excise tax on the nicotine-delivery devices (e.g. e-cigarettes, vaping pens) that are preferred by young people today. For price-sensitive young people, increasing the price of tobacco and nicotine products decreases use and addiction, and the burden of chronic disease in Georgia. Georgians for a Healthy Future supports legislation to increase Georgia’s tobacco tax by at least $1 and to add an equitable excise tax on all nicotine delivery devices.
6. Support partners in integrating health and equity in the policies across every sector to address social determinants of health that prevent equitable access to care and equitable health status.
Factors outside the health system such as adequate housing, education, and economic opportunity impact the health of individuals, families, and communities. Left unaddressed, these and other complicating factors can inhibit the effectiveness of approaches that are strictly within the health system. Georgians for a Healthy Future supports policies that aim to advance health and health equity by addressing the social determinants of health.
To download GHF’s 2019 policy priorities, click here.
Linda Smith Lowe Health Advocacy Award: Sylvia Caley
Community Impact Award: CaringWorks
Powerhouse Policymaker Award: Commissioner Frank Berry
Power House Policymaker Award: Representative Bob Trammel
Sylvia Caley, JD, MBA, RN recently retired as a clinical professor at Georgia State University College of Law teaching law students and other professional graduate students enrolled in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic. In addition, she teaches Health Legislation and Advocacy, a year-long course in which law students work with community partners to address health-related legislative and regulatory issues affecting the community. She was an adjunct clinical assistant professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. She is the director of the Health Law Partnership (HeLP), an interdisciplinary community collaboration among Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and the College of Law. She is a member of the Ethics Committees at Grady Health System and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and also is a member of the Public Policy Committee at Children’s. She also is a member of the Advisory Committee on Organ Transplantation, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services. Her research interests focus on using interdisciplinary and holistic approaches to address the socio-economic and environmental issues affecting the health and well-being of children, specifically the lives of low-income, chronically ill, and disabled children. For her years of service and leadership in Georgia, we are proud to honor Sylvia with the Linda Smith Lowe Health Advocacy Award.
CaringWorks, Inc. was founded in 2002 with a mission to reduce homelessness and empower the marginalized by providing access to housing and services that foster dignity, self-sufficiency and well-being. It was built on the single idea that every citizen, no matter their social or economic standing, should have the chance to improve their quality of life. CaringWorks specializes in providing housing, mental health services, substance use disorder treatment, and an array of related social supports to individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness.
In the 15 years since it’s founding, CaringWorks has grown into one of the largest supportive housing providers in the greater Atlanta area. In 2018, the agency will impact over 900 extremely low-income men, women and children who are facing homelessness, over 90% of whom are expected to achieve permanent, sustainable housing. It collaborates with partners throughout the city of Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb, Rockdale, Henry and Newton counties to serve the individuals considered to be the most vulnerable and at-risk of injury, illness, or death. For their service, commitment, and impact, we are proud to honor CaringWorks with the Community Impact Award.
Frank W. Berry is the Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH). In this role, he leads the $14 billion agency responsible for health care purchasing, planning and regulation, and improving the health outcomes of Georgians. The agency administers Georgia Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP), and provides access to health care coverage for approximately one in four Georgians. In addition to Medicaid and SHBP, he also oversees Healthcare Facility Regulation Division, Office of Health Planning (which implements the Certificate of Need program), and the State Office of Rural Health.
Prior to joining DCH, Berry served as the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities for four and a half years, and has more than 30 years of public service experience. He was previously the Chief Executive Officer of View Point Health Community Service Board. Berry serves as the Chairman for the ABLE Board and is a member of the First Lady’s Children’s Cabinet. Commissioner Berry has demonstrated his dedication to bettering health care in Georgia we are proud to recognize him as a 2018 Powerhouse Policymaker.
Bob Trammell practices law at the Trammell Firm, which he founded in Luthersville, Georgia in 2003. He is truly a son of the 132nd district; his law office is located in the former home of his grandparents. Bob started his legal career as a law clerk in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. He subsequently practiced law at King and Spalding before returning home to start his own firm. Since 2011, Bob has served as the county attorney for Meriwether County. He is also a member of the Meriwether County Chamber of Commerce and the Meriwether County Bar Association.
Education has always been a priority for Bob, particularly because both of his parents are retired educators. Bob is a 1996 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia, where he was a Foundation Fellow majoring in English and Political Science. He obtained his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1999. Bob believes strongly that education is essential to preparing Georgia’s workforce for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future. Investment in science, technology, engineering, and math programs is the key to creating job opportunities for all Georgians.
Bob and his wife Jenny reside in Luthersville where they are busy raising daughters Mary, three years old, and Virginia, who will be two in September. Jenny, a graduate of the University of Georgia, works as a pharmacist with CVS-Caremark in LaGrange. Bob and Jenny can think of no other place that they would want to raise their family. Bob believes in making Georgia the best place to work, learn, and live for not only his family, but for all Georgians. For his steadfast commitment to improving the lives of all Georgians, we are honored to recognize him as a 2018 Powerhouse Policymaker.
We hope you’ll join us tomorrow, on September 6th as we recognize our amazing awardees! RSVP
Georgians for a Healthy Future hosted its Georgia Voices for Medicaid training on Thursday, July 19th in partnership with the Central Outreach & Advocacy Center. The Georgia Voices for Medicaid trainings are designed to give participants the knowledge and skills they need to advocate for timely, important health care issues impacting Georgians.
At this week’s training, participants learned that Georgia’s Medicaid program provides health insurance for half of Georgia’s children, and that it also covers low-income people with disabilities, seniors, and pregnant women. In Fulton and DeKalb counties—Georgia’s two most populous counties–118,755 and 107,340 residents respectively are covered through Medicaid. Alyssa Green, GHF’s Outreach & Education Manager, shared testimonials from several Georgians who have Medicaid, including the story of a Georgia man who credits Medicaid as the reason he is able to financially support himself and work in his community.
GHF’s Executive Director Laura Colbert introduced ways that participants can advocate for the health care issues that matter most to them, like protecting and improving the Medicaid program or bringing down health care costs. Participants were given the opportunity to practice their advocacy skills by sending an introductory email to their state legislators that communicated what they learned at the training.
The training concluded with an invitation for attendees to continue their health care advocacy work with GHF’s new Georgia Health Action Network (GHAN) program. GHAN is a volunteer-led program that fosters and supports grassroots health advocates who work alongside GHF to reach a day when all Georgians have access to the quality, affordable health care they need to live healthy lives and contribute to the health of their communities.
If you were unable to attend this Georgia Voices for Medicaid training, join us for our next training event in Athens or contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-567-5016, ext. 2 to schedule a training in your community. You can also contact Alyssa learn more about GHF’s new Georgia Health Action Network.
Georgians for a Healthy Future hosted an educational forum titled Strong Foundations: Building a System of Care to Address the Behavioral Health Needs of Georgia Children on Tuesday, May 15. The forum explored the behavioral health needs of Georgia children and youth, Georgia’s publicly-supported behavioral health landscape, and successes and opportunities in the current system of care. The event also raised awareness about Georgia’s system of care in an effort to improve access to behavioral health services for children and youth.
The event began with Respect Institute speaker Tammie Harrison, who shared her experiences navigating the behavioral health care system and getting to a place of recovery.
Because many of the event attendees were new to the topic of children’s behavioral health (BH), GHF’s Executive Director Laura Colbert provided some foundational information about the prevalence of children’s BH conditions, contributors to poor BH, and the pathways to BH care and supports for young Georgians. You can find Laura’s PowerPoint slides here. She also debuted GHF’s new behavioral health fact sheet.
Dante McKay, Director of the Office of Children, Young Adults, & Families at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) provided attendees with an overview of DBHDD’s work, the 2017 System of Care state plan, and how the recently signed FY19 budget would impact the department’s ability to serve Georgia children and youth.
Dr. Erica Fener-Sitkoff, Executive Director of Voices for Georgia’s Children moderated a panel discussion of BH service providers, which included Wendy Farmer of Behavioral Health Link, Laura Lucas of Project LAUNCH (DBHDD), and Monica McGannon of CHRIS 180. The panelists discussed barriers to accessing BH services, which they said include continued stigma, lack of trained workforce, and transportation. The panel also identified innovative efforts, like Project LAUNCH and mobile crisis services, to bring BH services closer to consumers when and where they need it. When asked how Georgia’s next Governor could continue to make progress in the area of children’s behavioral health, panelists suggested a focus on workforce development, increasing access to community-based substance use treatment for teens, and prevention and early intervention.
If you missed the event, a recording of the webcast is available here.
To see photos, review materials, and read more about our Strong Foundations event, please visit the event page.
Last week, Georgia health advocates, service providers, and enrollment assisters combined forces for a day of learning, sharing, and planning at our second annual Getting Georgia Covered summit. In conjunction with the event, Georgians for a Future released a new publication focusing on key themes in consumer and assister experiences during the 2016 open enrollment period, best practices for outreach, enrollment, and reaching eligible Georgians who remain uninsured, and policy opportunities to increase enrollment, improve access to care, and address affordability issues. The report, Getting Georgia Covered: What We Can Learn From Consumer and Assister Experiences During the Third Open Enrollment Period, is intended to be a resource for health care stakeholders, advocates, and policymakers.
In addition to workshops that fostered collaboration between organizations and individuals working on behalf of health care consumers in different ways, we also featured presentations and remarks from Dr. Pamela Roshell, Region IV Director, US Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Bill Custer, Director of Center for Health Services Research and Associate Professor, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, Heather Bates, Deputy Director, Enrollment Assister Network, Families USA and Sandy Anh, Associate Research Professor, Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms. Jemea Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer for the Center for Black Women’s Wellness, and Sarah Sessons, Executive Director of the Insure Georgia Initiative of Community Health Works also offered their expertise and insights in a closing panel. In the coming weeks, we will release a publication highlighting promising opportunities to improve consumer health through collaboration, drawing on the discussions and ideas that came out of the workshops and discussions.
2016 Linda Smith Lowe Health Advocacy Award: Tim Sweeney, Former Deputy Director & Health Policy Analyst Georgia Budget and Policy Institute
2016 Community Impact Award: Carole Maddux, Executive Director & CEO, Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center
For more than ten years, Tim Sweeney set the standard for reliable and responsible health policy analysis in Georgia. His insights and analysis equipped Georgia’s health advocacy community with the information needed to be a strong voice for consumers. He dissected the state budget each year, decoding line items and formulas. Tim read studies and briefed us on their findings, helping us all connect the dots between data and the health care stories of individuals, families, and communities across our state. While we know he will continue to achieve great things throughout his career, the people of Oregon will now benefit from his expertise and commitment. For his decade of service in Georgia, we are proud to honor Tim with the Linda Smith Lowe Health Advocacy Award.
Carole Maddux lives and breathes health care access through her work leading Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center in Pickens County. Under her leadership, Good Samaritan has recently transitioned to a federally qualified health center, is undergoing an expansion to better meet the community need, and is engaged in a local partnership to foster better collaboration locally. Carole also provides a clear, moral voice for systemic change in health care, speaking out on behalf of Medicaid expansion and other public policies that would expand coverage and increase access to care for all Georgians. For her leadership, commitment, and impact, we are proud to honor Carole with the Community Impact Award.
We hope you’ll join us on September 28th as we recognize Tim and Carole! RSVP
Harry Heiman & Abby Friedman
AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Cindy Zeldin & Doug Busk
Easter Seals Southern Georgia
Georgia Association for Primary Health Care
AbsoluteCARE Medical Center & Pharmacy
Georgia Charitable Care Network
Ilene Engel & Bob Arotsky
American Diabetes Association
Bo & Chris Hagler
Essig Gehl Consulting
Feminist Women’s Health Center
The GHF Staff
Jeff Cornett & Edward Fernandez-Villa
UGA College of Public Health
Voices for Georgia’s Children
Georgians for a Healthy Future’s Executive Director Cindy Zeldin sat down with A Spirit of Charity author Mike King to discuss his new book on the role of public hospitals in America. Below is a Q&A that delves into some of the book’s major themes. On July 19th, Georgians for a Healthy Future will hold a book event in Atlanta with Mike King, providing a unique opportunity for the advocacy community to discuss the history and role of public hospitals in America and the direction of health policy in Georgia with the author.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I have been writing and editing stories about medicine and natural medicine like thai kratom powder and health care policy for about 30 years where they use different kind of medicines, you could for example this reach out to one!. When the newspaper business collapsed and I chose to leave it in 2009, I thought I’d just retire and take it easy. But when the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 I realized I had the time, without daily deadline pressures, to tell a story about the most important effort at reform over the last 50 years and how it might play out right here in Atlanta and at Grady in particular,.
How do public hospitals serve as a window into America’s health system?
As the book hopefully makes clear, the people who show up in the emergency rooms and clinics of America’s public hospitals are the result of all gaping holes, political compromises and unintended consequences of decades of attempts to reform our health care system. Even in our noblest of efforts, we always seem to leave whole segments of our society behind. Donald Trump, in a candid moment earlier in the campaign when the media pushed him for more details about what his alternative to Obamacare would look like, frustratingly blurted, “Look, we won’t let people die in the streets, OK?” In some ways that’s been our baseline as a health care system from the start, which is why public hospitals were created. We don’t let our citizens die in the streets. They get sick in the street but, if they are lucky, we get them to a public hospital that hopefully will rescue them from dying before they return to the streets. That’s a harsh assessment, I know, and we do much better than that in many places thanks to the commitment of engaged local and state leaders, but there are too many places where the local public hospital seems expected to shoulder this burden on its own.
Four of the five hospitals profiled in your book are located in the South, and the role of Southern politicians in crafting U.S. health policy is explored throughout the book. Why a focus on the South?
Because the South is where the most problems are. Texas, Florida and Georgia lead the nation in the dubious distinction of having the most uninsured residents among all 50 states – mostly because all three have refused to expand Medicaid the way the ACA called for. Louisiana is high on the list too, but the new governor there is moving to try to expand Medicaid. Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Jackson Memorial in Miami, the University Medical Center in New Orleans (the replacement hospital for Charity) and, of course, Grady, all have to contend with a huge percentage of patients who are poor and uninsured and could be, should be, covered by Medicaid. That’s why I chose them.
Some public hospitals like Grady were established during segregation. The 1946 Hill-Burton Act, which catalyzed hospital construction, contained a provision permitting segregation in hospitals receiving federal funds. How does this legacy of segregation impact public hospitals today?
Hill-Burton was the first time federal law actually codified a separate-but-equal funding mechanism and it was inserted into the law specifically to get members of Congress from the South to go along. Rural hospitals around the South and more than a few in the suburbs were built in the 1950s and 60s with Hill-Burton money. Grady was rebuilt as a segregated hospital in 1958. After the enactment the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Medicare in 1965 that changed. Segregated hospitals – public and private – stood to lose too much money that they would be getting for the care of previously uninsured elderly patients if they stayed segregated. But there is still a legacy to overcome. There’s a reason elderly Atlantans still refer to Grady as the Gradies, going back not that long ago to when there was a Black Grady and a White Grady, with black nurses taking care of black patients and white nurses taking care of white patients. It still complicates the public discussion about how best to finance and administer this particular public hospital. I suspect that goes on in a lot of communities around the South that share a similar legacy.
You write that public hospitals serve as a “pressure release valve” for our nation’s health system. What do you mean by this?
We often refer to these places as safety net hospitals. But I contend they are more than that. The existence of a single hospital in a community that is chartered or required to take in all patients regardless of ability to pay fundamentally alters the medical marketplace in that community. It allows those hospitals that compete with it to measure their anticipated level of charity care against their expected revenue from insured patients and come up with a formula that helps them stay healthy and able to grow. It is not that most of these competing hospitals don’t provide a responsible level of charity care. Most of them do. But it is always at a level they can afford to provide. Public hospitals operate on a totally different business model. They have to take all comers and the only way they can stay open is to get some level of funding from state and local taxes to offset their losses. Here’s another way of looking at it: If Grady had gone belly up in 2007 and 2008, all the uninsured and indigent patients it served would have swamped the emergency rooms of Piedmont, the Atlanta Medical Center, Northside, St. Joseph’s, Emory and DeKalb Medical as well as other hospitals, jeopardizing their ability to provide the level of services their business model calls for. The safety valve would have blown.
Information about Medicaid, the health care program intended to help finance care for low-income Americans, is interwoven throughout your book. How are the histories and fates of Medicaid and public hospitals intertwined?
They are the key to understanding each other because Medicaid patients make up a large portion of the patients who go to these hospitals. When Medicaid was enacted in 1965 the theory was that with a health insurance program now in place for the poor and with Medicare available to the elderly, our nation’s public hospitals would finally start getting paid for many of the services they had been providing on a charity basis. But unlike Medicare, Medicaid was hampered – I would argue fundamentally flawed – by a series of compromises to get it through Congress. States were given a much bigger role in determining how poor you had to be to qualify for Medicaid, how much they wanted to pay doctors and hospitals to provide services for Medicaid patients and indeed whether they wanted to participate in the program at all. (Arizona didn’t join Medicaid until the 1980s.) The result was a checkerboard of health care programs for the poor around the country, based largely on what the states decide. And in the South, Medicaid has been chronically underfunded at the state level and treated more like a welfare program. This is how Southern politicians get away with calling it a failure. They starve it for funds, make it difficult for low-income people to get covered by it, grossly underpay doctors and hospitals that take patients covered by it and then decry the program for not working and being inefficient.
America’s health system is characterized by fragmentation. Why do you think this is and what is the role of public hospitals in a fragmented system?
We’ve all heard it before. America has a sick care system, not a health care system. And that system is based on who pays for sick care, not necessarily how we can more effectively pay for care to help keep people healthy. The good news is that the ACA is moving in the direction of breaking down some of the silos that have developed over the decades in how we deliver and pay for health care, with an emphasis on moving away from paying a fee for specific services and toward paying for overall wellness. That’s good. But it will take years to see results. Public hospitals will need to move in this direction as well – and some of them are. Cook County’s Medicaid Program (County Care) is coordinating care with its community hospital and clinic network and the federally funded community health centers in Chicago. The initial results look encouraging. If it works it will not only save lives but help control the rise in costs. But public hospitals must adapt to these new models and remain, in most large cities, the sole providers of costly essential services like trauma, HIV/AIDS and behavioral health for those who are still uninsured.
You write that, if public hospitals didn’t exist, “We would have to invent them.” What would an America without public hospitals look like?
It would be fascinating to see, wouldn’t it? Public hospitals were created one hundred to one hundred and fifty years ago when it became obvious that the charitable institutions in large American cities could not meet the demand for care caused by yellow fever, cholera, pestilence and other public health threats, not to mention the population growth in cities after the Civil War. The almshouses and infirmaries, often staffed by religious women and funded by churches and community groups, just could not keep up. I suspect the same would happen today if we came to rely exclusively on the nonprofit sector to take over the responsibility for caring for the poor and uninsured. Even if we became enlightened and created a system of true universal insurance for all Americans, there would still be a need for expensive specialty areas. Trauma care, infectious disease programs, severe, chronic mental health services – these essential services now almost exclusively provided by public hospitals – I would suspect they would require some level of local and state financing at a public facility that would go beyond what they can expect in the way of revenue from a public insurance plan.
Grady is featured prominently throughout the book. What did you learn about Grady by writing this book that you didn’t know before?
That it is even bigger and more complicated and harder to manage than I ever dreamed. I think the current administration there is doing a really good job at getting the hospital positioned to be everything it can be. The quality of the specialty services there – trauma, neuroscience, neonatology, burn care, sickle cell, infectious disease – has probably never been better, and they get well informed visiting Litchfield Neurofeedback to learn about the benefits of Neurofeedback Therapy. The cancer program there, in addition to being first rate at the acute care level, is making great strides in the community in the much-needed area of early detection and treatment. That will go a long way toward reducing the disparities that exist in morbidity and mortality between white and black, affluent and poor residents of our community. But the hospital is still heavily reliant on the business and philanthropic community to grow, especially when it comes to capital improvements and equipment. That’s all been private money since the comeback started. State and county officials have yet to step up to the plate to help. If they are willing to help the Braves and the Falcons build new venues, they must be willing to step up to help Georgia’s most important hospital build and grow and provide essential services.
What role does Grady serve in health care policy in the state of Georgia?
The state needs to recognize Grady is a statewide institution, if for no other reason than it is the training ground for about one in every four doctors practicing in Georgia. I’ve often wondered whether the state’s relationship with Grady would be different if it had been affiliated with a state medical school instead of Emory and Morehouse – two private medical schools. Perhaps then it would have paid more attention to it. Even though Grady gets patients from almost every one of Georgia 159 counties, it isn’t realistic to think the state must subsidize indigent patient care there, but it could do much better and providing funding for the specialty services that Grady provides to all Georgians – trauma care, burn care, infectious diseases, etc. And, of course, it should expand Medicaid coverage so that Grady and all other hospitals in the state that have a heavy load of uninsured patients will at least have an opportunity to recoup some of their costs.
Where do you think Georgia is headed on health care policy?
I think we’ll expand Medicaid. Eventually. After President Obama is in the rear view mirror. We’ll call it something else so it doesn’t sound like it is part of Obamacare. But we will have squandered $3 to 5 billion and 100 percent federal funding to make this impetuous political statement, and no telling how many Georgians – one study puts it at 1,200 lives a year – who died because they lived in a state where they should have, but were kept from, enrolling in Medicaid. With a little political vision – and the help of advocates and experts – my hope is that we could create a Medicaid program that isn’t so fragmented; that fully integrates primary care and acute, hospital care; that reorganizes local hospitals and health departments into a true public health system that helps people stay healthy and when they get sick have no barriers to the care that they need. That shouldn’t be a pipe dream in a country as wealthy and smart as ours. That should be a working reality. On the other hand, try to visit what is a medium.