Sebelius pitches Obamacare in Atlanta

The Obama administration’s top healthcare official said Monday she is eager to work with states experimenting with new ways to improve access to health care for millions of low-income Americans.

Speaking in Atlanta, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cited Arkansas and Iowa as two states exploring innovative ways to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Expanding the government health program for the poor is key to the health law’s aim to provide health coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.

“No one’s health care should be determined by their ZIP code,” she said. “This is no longer a political debate. This is what we call the law.”

She addressed hundreds of state lawmakers from across the country attending the the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual legislative summit this week in downtown Atlanta.

Georgia is among states that have refused to participate in the Medicaid expansion, which would extend coverage to an estimated 650,000 of the state’s residents. Gov. Nathan Deal, an Obamacare opponent, argues the state can’t afford the expansion even though federal money would fund it for the first few years.

Deal also decided not to have the state set up its own online insurance marketplace, called an exchange, where the uninsured who don’t qualify for Medicaid can shop for coverage. Instead, the federal government will run the state’s exchange.

“I applaud our governor for standing his ground (on Obamacare),” said state Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, who attended the speech. “It’s unaffordable…and Secretary Sebelius merely pushed President Obama’s message.”

Meanwhile Monday, Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, who is running for U.S. Senate, kicked off a statewide tour calling for the full repeal of the health care law — something the Republican-led U.S. House has tried to do repeatedly, to no avail.

“Every day we learn something else about Obamacare, and it’s never good news,” Gingrey said in a statement. “Whether it’s an employee losing hours and take-home pay, a small business owner unable to expand or hire more people, or hard-working Americans forking over even more in taxes, this law is a bad deal for everyone.”

Supporters of the law argue expanding Medicaid will ultimately help to lower health care costs by helping to keep people healthier in the first place through preventive screenings and check-ups. Georgia hospitals spend an estimated $1.5 billion each year on free care for the poor — a cost that leads to higher hospital bills and insurance premiums for people who do have insurance, health care experts say.

“Taxpayers are already picking up that tab,” Sebelius said in her speech. “They just don’t know it.”

Nearly 900,000 Georgians are expected to shop on the exchange website, which is set to launch Oct. 1. It will allow them to compare prices and benefits of health plans offered by private insurers, as well as figure out if they quality for federal subsidies to make buying coverage more affordable or whether they’re eligible for government health programs. Health plans bought through the exchange will take effect Jan. 1.

Federally-funded health centers, nonprofits and other groups will be focusing on outreach efforts to educate consumers about the exchange in the coming weeks.

“(Consumers are) hungry for information,” Sebelius said. “They want to clear the clutter and just get the facts.”

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