U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said earlier this year that it would be “unsustainable and impractical” to repeal Obamacare without having a replacement in place. Tuesday, though, he said he would not “answer a specific question when there’s not a plan,” after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advanced the idea of repealing the health care law now and producing a replacement later. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia stakeholders anxious and confused over health care fight

“It’s wrong for us to say we’re going to repeal Obamacare without replacing it with a plan that we know works and has the opportunity (to work),” Isakson said in a speech on the Senate floor.

The third-term Republican was less certain as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, scrambling to salvage the GOP’s years-old repeal effort, floated a similar gambit Tuesday.

“I’m not going to answer a specific question when there’s not a plan,” Isakson said. “I’ll specifically address that when the leader comes up with a plan one way or another.”

McConnell’s pledge to tee up a vote on a repeal-only measure early next week — despite the fact that opponents appeared to have enough votes to sink the legislation — sowed seeds of confusion and anxiety across Georgia as local stakeholders evaluated their own futures and next steps.

It left others simply exhausted.

“It’s kind of weird when you have to look at your phone every minute to learn what’s happening in your industry,” said Chris Kane, a hospital management consultant.

Stability wanted

In the aftermath of Monday’s and Tuesday’s events on Capitol Hill, which saw the GOP’s replacement bill shelved and the future of the repeal-only effort grow uncertain, local insurance companies urged Congress for action and certainty — and to do it quickly.

Graham Thompson, a lobbyist for Georgia insurers, pointed to the rate increases that insurance companies had applied for this year to charge on the Obamacare exchange plans in 2018 — in large part due to uncertainty surrounding federal subsidies that the plans depend on — and policies around ensuring customers stay insured.

If there isn’t clarity, Thompson said, consumers will pay a real price.

“While people see those potential increases and say, ‘Wow, how could this happen?’ ” Thompson said, “well, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia last month proposed raising rates an average of 40.6 percent in 2018.

“I think it’s disappointing in that there isn’t an immediate, clear direction forward, given the very tight timeline between now, required insurer rate filings, and open enrolment — Georgians deciding what their options are for 2018,” Thompson said. “Certainly this is alarming, right?”

Even though the current version of the Senate’s repeal effort appeared to be dead, representatives from Georgia Medicaid advocacy groups planned to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Isakson not to alter the entitlement program or its services to the poor and disabled. The GOP bill proposes fundamentally transforming Medicaid from an entitlement program that funds all eligible health care costs to a state-run program with federal funding limits.

“These are vital services that people need,” said Dawn Johnson, the director of adult programs at the Frazer Center. “There are no viable alternatives to them.”

Industry executives such as Dave Smith, who consults with health care providers and the insurance companies that pay them, said he just wants the politics to give way to some smart compromises that help people.

“Consensus in Washington would be good,” Kane said. “But I fear it’s the equivalent of finding a unicorn. That’s what’s puzzling to me, as both a citizen and businessman, is how do you not get people in a room and find some plan that has the requisite votes?”

Bipartisan talks?

That consensus appeared to be far from the forefront on Capitol Hill.

Democrats said they would be willing to negotiate with Republicans only after they abandoned their talk of repealing Obamacare, a call that was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm on the right.

“I always work with everybody to get to the end, but we’re not ready to get to the end yet,” Isakson said of working with Democrats. “We can’t get to the beginning.”

His colleague Perdue said he was also open to working with Democrats, “but right now I believe that easiest way to (fix health care) is to repeal (Obamacare) because the structural things that are inside Obamacare just don’t allow it to be tweaked.”

While Isakson was weighing his options on the repeal-only effort, Perdue quickly indicated he was on board.

“What we did in ‘15 I voted for and I’d vote for it again,” Perdue said, referring to a 2015 bill that also repealed large swaths of Obamacare. The legislation was viewed as nonrisky at the time because President Barack Obama was still in office and guaranteed to veto the bill. Isakson also supported the 2015 bill.

As Republican senators were debating the path forward on health care Tuesday, a well-known Georgia clergyman was being arrested nearby for protesting the GOP health care bill, among other things.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, was photographed being escorted out the Russell Senate Office Building, where Isakson and Perdue’s offices are located, in handcuffs by Capitol police.

Warnock’s publicist, Tenisha Bell, said the pastor and other faith leaders were singing and praying in the rotunda of the Russell building.

Warnock and the Rev. Cynthia L. Hale, the senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, were among a group of pastors who went to Washington to highlight proposed cuts in the health care bill and Trump’s budget that would adversely affect black communities, including proposed decreases in Medicaid funding.

“I stand here today with my sisters and brothers to remind Congress that we as a nation have a moral obligation to ensure that every American’s life and health are safeguarded and protected,” Hale said Tuesday morning during a press conference in front of the Capitol.

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Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this article.