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Federal health reform isn 't over in Georgia

ATLANTA --- Last week's victory in a Florida federal court for conservatives in Georgia and 25 other states that are suing to stop the health care reform law didn't affect the law's impact in the Peach State or offset another decision by the Georgia Supreme Court that rankles conservatives.

For one thing, the Florida decision still must come before the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, a fairly friendly venue for conservatives, and then almost certainly before the U.S. Supreme Court. It could be another 18 months before the high court hands down a decision, according to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.

That would also be about when the law would be fully implemented.

"This is a win, but not a total win," he told the Georgia Association of Health Underwriters on Thursday.

In the meantime, the state is prudent to continue planning for the law to take effect, he said. After all, you wouldn't start sending tuition checks to Harvard the first time your ninth-grader makes the honor roll, he said.

"We don't think the decision gives us the luxury of stepping back and not doing anything," Assistant Insurance Commissioner Ron Jackson told the association and its legislator guests at Thursday's Capitol Hill luncheon.

When he was governor, Sonny Perdue accepted a $1 million federal grant to fund planning for the implementation. A big part of that has involved roundtable discussions on how to structure Georgia's health insurance exchanges, the mechanism for marketing policies to individuals.

Many aspects of the exchanges remain to be determined, such as whether the government or a private board will run them, if the policies can be sold across state lines and what bargaining power the exchanges will have where premiums are concerned.

Olens endorsed the continued exchange planning.

"I frankly prefer that the state design those exchanges with input from private industry than the Obama administration," he said.

Another step the state is taking to prepare for the implementation of the federal law has to do with insurance-company finances. The federal law gives the state authority to police companies to ensure they are paying out in claims at least 80 percent of the premiums they take in.

Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens says such a rigid stricture could destabilize companies that may have different structures for meeting expenses such as agent premiums.

Often, companies that are aggressively competing on the basis of low premiums will wind up paying a larger share of those premiums as commissions in the first year of a policy while a less competitive company would be more likely to have the ratio prescribed in the law.

Jackson said Hudgens is seeking information from agents and companies to use in seeking a waiver from the 80-percent requirement.

"We want to paint that picture as vividly as we can," Jackson said.

As happy as conservatives are about the Florida decision, they are still stewing about one from Georgia's Supreme Court.

In March, the court unanimously ruled unconstitutional a $250,000 legal cap on pain-and-suffering awards in medical-malpractice cases. The court ruled that a cap interferes with the rights of a jury.

But Feb. 2, in another luncheon in the same Capitol Hill conference room where the underwriters were to meet, the Heritage Foundation took aim at the court's decision.

"It's going to drive up the cost of medical care and reduce the number of medical providers," said Hans von Spakovsky, the head of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal & Judicial Studies.

Web posted on Thursday, February 10, 2011

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