Health insurance the focus at gubernatorial debate

Speaking at the National Federation of Independent Business' annual legislative day, the candidates found wide agreement in the need to make it easier and more affordable for business owners to provide health insurance to employees.

Republican John Oxendine, the state's insurance commissioner, said companies that offer auto and homeowners insurance must get his office's permission before raising rates. Health insurance companies should have to do the same thing, he said, but legislation he backed in 2009 to require that died in the General Assembly.

"Our good friends, mainly Republicans in the House and Senate, said: ‘Nooo, that's bad. That's anti-competition,' " Oxendine said.

Others agreed with Oxendine, including former Gov. Roy Barnes, who is seeking the Democratic nomination. Barnes also said small business owners should be able to leverage state government's Medicaid and state health plan to offer insurance at lower rates than they can get individually.

"If you allow those lives to be used to spread down, over large numbers, your rates will drop," Barnes said.

Several candidates, including Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, repeated the call to allow individuals in Georgia to buy health insurance plans that are only offered in other states. Deal also said state mandates for coverage should be removed in some cases, which would make coverage more affordable.

Republican Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, said cost savings can be found through programs that advocate a healthier lifestyle. Handel, who also called for lowering capital gains taxes on businesses and income taxes across the board, said more competition is needed for health insurance.

State Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) repeated the call for more competition and said health insurance companies should lose their antitrust exemption that allows them to set rates as an industry. And former state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said smaller groups of businesses should be allowed to pool together to buy insurance.

Carol Porter, who was there representing her husband, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), said her husband would get input from stakeholders and make a decision that would help create affordability.

Thursday's forum was the second gathering of a majority of the candidates this week, with more on the horizon. On Tuesday, Democrats will participate in a televised debate in Athens, and a week from today the top five Republicans -- Deal, Handel, Johnson, Oxendine and Scott -- will debate in Alpharetta.

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