Hudgens walks back remarks about chronically ill people

Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, recently likened people with pre-existing medical conditions to wrecked cars and appeared to suggest that the sick are at fault for their illnesses just as drivers are at fault for their accidents.

But Hudgens, who made the remarks to a group of Republicans last month, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday that he had used a “really poor analogy” and “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I’ve had family members, I’ve had friends … who have pre-existing conditions,” he said. “It’s not the person’s fault they have a pre-existing condition.”

Georgia Democratic Party Chair DuBose Porter, however, slammed Hudgens, calling the comments callous and out of touch.

“It is awful to think you could tell a woman who was just diagnosed with breast cancer that it’s her fault,” Porter said in a statement. “Georgians need affordable health care, regardless of their medical history.”

Hudgens called Porter’s statement “a preposterous interpretation” of his comments.

“All they’re doing is trying to deflect the criticism away from the rollout of Obamacare,” Hudgens said.

The commissioner spoke at the November meeting of the CSRA Republican Women’s Club near Augusta. At the event, he compared having a pre-existing condition to getting into a car wreck that is the driver’s own fault.

“Well, a pre-existing condition would be then you calling up your insurance agent and saying, ‘I’d like to get collision insurance coverage on my car,’ and your insurance agent says, ‘Well, you’ve never had that before. Why would you want it now?’ And you say, ‘Well, I just had a wreck, it was my fault and I want the insurance company to pay to repair my car,’” Hudgens said to laughter. “And that’s the exact same thing on pre-existing insurance.”

Hudgens said his only intention was to point out that not allowing insurance companies to take pre-existing conditions into consideration when deciding how much to charge customers will lead to drastic increases in insurance costs for everyone.

Starting Jan. 1 under the Affordable Care Act, insurers will only be able to base premiums on where someone lives, his age and whether he smokes. People can’t be charged more because they have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or other existing illness.

Augusta resident Amy Swann said Wednesday that Hudgens’ comments angered her.

Swann, 49, suffers from a genetic heart condition that killed her father, cousin and other family members.

“I feel really sad that (Hudgens) doesn’t understand that there are people in his state who have health problems that through genetics or environmental factors are no fault of their own,” she said.

Swann recently enrolled in coverage through the federally run Health Insurance Marketplace.

“Getting sick is not a choice, let alone a patient’s own fault,” said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of the nonprofit Georgians for a Healthy Future. “We cannot go back to the way it was in the past, when insurance companies alone would decide who they wanted to cover and who they didn’t.”

Zeldin pointed out that covering pre-existing conditions does not mean someone can break his leg skiing and sign up for insurance on the way to the hospital.

The majority of people can only sign up for health plans through the Health Insurance Marketplace during defined enrollment periods. Some may be eligible to enroll outside of those periods because of certain life events, such as moving to a new state, a job loss or divorce. The current enrollment period for the marketplace lasts through March 31. People must sign up for coverage by Dec. 23 for it to take effect on Jan. 1.

Hudgens has joined Gov. Nathan Deal in loudly criticizing the health law, saying the state can’t afford to expand Medicaid, as the law provides, and that the Obamacare will drastically increase insurance premiums for consumers.

He also vowed earlier this year to not do anything to help the law be successful.

“The problem is Obamacare,” he told a partisan crowd at an event in Rome. “And we’re doing everything in our power to be an obstructionist.”

Personal responsibility is also important, said Ron Bachman, a senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. By barring insurers from charging premiums based on health status, the health law doesn’t offer an incentive for people to try and better manage their illnesses, Bachman said.

“That doesn’t seem fair to people who have been treating their conditions and following their doctors’ orders,” he said.

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