Capitol Recap: Ailing Grady to get a funding shot in the arm

Plan in works to help hospital cope with more patients after AMC’s demise

The Grady Health System, struggling with its own financial issues and expected to take on a heavier workload once the Atlanta Medical Center closes, will receive a $130 million cash injection from the state using federal money.

And more could be coming in private donations.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced the plan to be funded with money the state received through the American Rescue Plan, a federal coronavirus relief package.

Officials also said they expect to line up as much as $50 million in philanthropic donations.

Grady was already hurting when Wellstar Health System caught officials off guard with its announcement late last month that it is shutting down AMC. Grady CEO John Haupert told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July that the health system was in the red, facing a deficit of about $50 million largely because of the costs of temporary nurses.

Grady Memorial Hospital, which will be the city’s only high-level trauma center and potentially the busiest one in the nation once AMC closes, could use the new money to add at least 185 beds. AMC has 460 beds.

The two hospitals act as a safety net that provides health care for some of Atlanta’s poorest residents, including thousands who lack insurance. In 2020, more than half of Grady’s patients were either uninsured (25%) or receiving Medicaid (28%) benefits, according to a fact sheet.

The AMC shutdown, set for Nov. 1, one week ahead of Election Day, has added to the debate in the race for governor.

Democrat Stacey Abrams has blamed Kemp for refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which supporters say would provide coverage to about 500,000 more low-income Georgians. That, she said, left billion of dollars in federal funding on the table that could have helped flailing hospitals remain in business.

Kemp’s campaign says that Abrams is “falsely blaming the governor” for AMC’s financial woes.

The governor, instead of fully expanding Medicaid, has pushed an alternative “waiver” program that’s expected to cover about 50,000 low-income adults.

Wellstar says that Medicaid expansion alone would not have saved the facility. However, research has shown that Medicaid expansion helps hospitals stay open and bolsters residents’ access to emergency care.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Walker backs call for nationwide ban on abortions

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker has gone further than key national GOP figures in backing South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal seeking a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

“I am a proud pro-life Christian, and I will always stand up for our unborn children,” Walker said in a statement. “I believe the issue should be decided at the state level, but I WOULD support this policy.”

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and some other Republicans were more reluctant to get behind Graham’s proposal. They prefer to avoid new debates on abortion ahead of November’s midterm elections and instead want to keep the spotlight on GOP-friendly issues such as inflation.

Walker’s opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, supports abortion rights, and his campaign saw an opportunity to demonstrate how the two candidates differ on the issue.

“Georgia voters will have a clear choice this fall between Rev. Warnock’s record of fighting to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and Herschel Walker, who wants to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at risk, and who would support a national abortion ban in the Senate,” Warnock communications director Meredith Brasher said.

Walker has already taken a stand that’s stronger than what Graham proposed. Early in his campaign, he filled out a survey from the Georgia Life Alliance that supported outlawing abortion, including in instances of rape and incest. He added that he’d back “legislation which protects the sanctity of human life, even if the legislation is not perfect.”

Graham’s proposal would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, but it includes exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk.

That’s less restrictive than Georgia’s law. It offers the same exceptions but bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, or about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

After much debate, Warnock and Walker will debate

After weeks of talking, Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are set to join each other on stage to, well, talk.

The two agreed to debate Oct. 14 at a theater in Savannah.

Until then, there had been much debate about whether they would debate.

At one point, Walker said, “Name the place and the time, and we can get it on.”

Warnock agreed to three debates: one sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, another at Mercer University in Macon and a third in Savannah that the WTOC television station would host.

Those, however, were apparently not suitable for getting it on. Walker picked a separate debate proposal by another Savannah station, Nexstar affiliate WSAV.

Warnock then said he would do it, but he had conditions: He wanted Walker to agree to a second debate.

It’s still not certain that will happen.

During an appearance in Norcross before the debate deal was announced, Walker was pressed to answer whether he would agree to Warnock’s demand for an additional faceoff. “Tell (Warnock) to volunteer to do the first one,” he said. “Put his big man pants on, quit complaining.”

It will be Walker’s first debate. He wouldn’t participate in showdowns with fellow Republicans ahead of the May primary because he didn’t need to. His high name recognition as a former football star at the University of Georgia, plus support from former President Donald Trump, allowed him to coast to victory over five other Republicans.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Ralston will be looking for ‘opportunity’ in next session, not another culture battle

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston showed no interest in starting another round of culture war issues during a recent discussion on the legislative session that begins in January.

Ralston is not a fortuneteller, but he has a big say in what happens at the Capitol. That’s likely to continue, since Republicans are expected to maintain their hold on the General Assembly in November’s elections.

He sees the next session as one of “opportunity,” he said in a speech to the Savannah Rotary Club, with economic development and infrastructure gaining most of the attention.

That, he said, would include initiatives to boost the state’s freight infrastructure to capitalize on Georgia’s growing auto industry, with Hyundai and Rivian plants expected to soon employ thousands of workers.

Ralston also said lawmakers must prepare the state for the “demands of an automobile market that is becoming ever more reliant on electric charging capability.”

There also could be measures involving rural development, mental health and affordable housing.

Ralston didn’t utter a word about revisiting Georgia’s anti-abortion law now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, expanding gun rights or reviving religious liberty legislation that fueled fiery debate in recent sessions.

Political rhetoric, he said, has “gotten a little too heated — some might say uncivilized.”

The speaker would prefer to focus on lessons he learned from students in Audrey Haynes’ applied politics class at the University of Georgia.

“They wanted to know about their future. They wanted to hear what jobs and opportunities would await them when they joined the workforce,” Ralston said. “They asked what my colleagues in the General Assembly and I were doing to make sure they had access to good schools, good health care and safe communities.”

Love and hate help fill campaign coffers in Greene-Flowers showdown

As the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde might croon, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.”

Each side of the line, however, is a good way to bring in campaign donations.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, draws a lot of love — and campaign dollars — from the right whenever she stirs the political pot with a social media post such as a recent call to “defund the FBI.”

But in politics, actions are often met by equal and opposite reactions, and that’s been good for the bank account of her Democratic opponent, Marcus Flowers.

The two of them are among the top 10 fundraisers running for Congress nationwide. Flowers collected $10.7 million in donations through June, even though Greene is considered a lock to win reelection in the 14th Congressional District. Greene raked in $10.2 million.

“That just illustrates how polarizing she is,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “Either you love her or you hate her; there is no in between. The lovers are sending her money, and the haters are sending the other guy money.”

Love and hate know no boundaries.

Most of the money has come in donations too small to reach the federal limit requiring full reporting of individual contributions. But of the $4.7 million that has been itemized between the two candidates, less than $100,000 has come from ZIP codes within the 14th District. Greene has received about $80,000 from inside the district, representing 3% of her itemized funds. For Flowers, the number is about $16,000, or less than 1% of all itemized dollars.

Much of the money that’s gone out has been spent on ways to bring even more back in.

Greene spent nearly $8 million through June, and $5 million of it was devoted to “solicitation and fundraising expenses.”

At least $3.5 million of the $10 million Flowers has spent falls under categories related to fundraising expenses.

Regents seek more money for colleges and trim majors

The University System of Georgia will be seeking more money in its next budget while offering fewer degree programs.

The Board of Regents is asking for nearly $25.5 million more in state funding to run the University System’s 26 public colleges.

The regents approved an operating budget request of $3.14 billion in state funding for fiscal 2024, which begins July 1. That’s up from from about $3.12 billion this year.

The funding request now goes to the governor’s office. The General Assembly will have a final say on what Kemp ultimately requests.

Helping to drive the request is a boost in health insurance costs for employees and retirees, system officials said. Other factors include a rise in the number of student credit hours and an increase in the square footage of campus buildings that the system maintains and operates.

The regents also are asking for $204.2 million for capital projects, most of which would go toward designing, constructing and equipping buildings on more than a dozen campuses.

The board also voted to discontinue 215 low-enrollment degree programs at 18 colleges in areas such as French, classical culture and certain specialized teaching fields.

Stuart Rayfield, vice chancellor for leadership and institutional development, told the regents that some of the degrees have gone through significant curriculum changes, have been renamed or a new program has been proposed to revamp the degree.

“The enrollment in these programs necessitated the deactivation,” Rayfield said, “and without some sort of significant reboot in the program, there was not a … significant interest in rebounding these programs.”

The list of terminated programs includes 43 at the University of Georgia, 32 at Georgia Southern University, 28 at Georgia State University and 26 at Augusta University.

Political expedience

  • Pursuing a new agency: The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s members are urging the Biden administration to put the headquarters of a new federal health care agency in Georgia. In a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, they said metro Atlanta’s “healthcare, technology, innovation, partnerships, talent, diversity and history” would all contribute to the success of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. The new agency was created with the goal of pursuing high-risk, high-reward innovations in health care. At least one person in the agency is already familiar with the area: Its new director, Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, earned her undergraduate degree and doctorate from Georgia Tech.
  • Warnock, Louisiana Republican succeed with veterans bill: Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock partnered with Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana on a bill to require the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to create an online tracking system where veterans can file complaints about their health care services. Currently, only officials with the VA — which has faced complaints about poor service — can file and track complaints electronically. The Senate approved Warnock and Kennedy’s bill by unanimous consent. The House passed the measure in May.
  • Fair Fight announces endorsements: Fair Fight, the political organization that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams founded, is backing three other members of the party’s ticket: Charlie Bailey for lieutenant governor, Jen Jordan for attorney general and William Boddie for labor commissioner.
  • McCormick gets a nod: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has endorsed the GOP’s candidate in the 6th Congressional District, Rich McCormick.

More top stories online

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/: