Health-Care Costs on Lawmakers' Minds; They Meet, Brainstorm Answers to Increases

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- After listening to health-care professionals, advocates and others discuss growing medical costs and what Georgia might do to limit them, Newnan retiree Dave Harris had trouble picking out the most intriguing idea.

"Everything, practically," Harris said after the Wednesday morning meeting at the state Capitol. "They all had good ideas."

And all those ideas, observers and lawmakers say, might be needed to help rein in the ever-rising cost of health care, both for private plans and those funded by taxpayers.

For several years now, ballooning medical prices have caused pain for the wallets of working families and the state budget. Medicaid, a state and federal program that provides health care for lower-income Georgians, is expected to gobble 60 percent of the state's new revenue next year, crowding out other priorities.

"We've got schools and public safety and infrastructure needs we've got to be able to fund as well," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans and a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

But lawmakers and experts in health care quickly admit there is no silver bullet that will fix the rapid inflation in medical costs. The solution is likely to be a complex web of initiatives and might take several years to put in place.

"My guess is this problem is about as tough as quantum physics," said Jim Webb, an attorney who was a member of the panel at the Wednesday meeting.

Discussions about the rising costs of health care -- and its impacts on the budgets of families and states -- have grown in recent years as prices have gone higher and higher. In addition to Wednesday's summit, a portion of a meeting of legislators this week in Athens will be devoted to the issue.

And the topic was a subject of a meeting last week of the National Conference of State Legislators in Savannah.

"It's the biggest issue we're going to face," Harbin said of the legislative session that begins in January.

Even legislators are willing to admit they have no cure-all for the problem.

"It's just one of those things where there's just no easy answers," said Rep. Mickey Channell, D-Greensboro.

But observers say the state does have the ability to wrestle with and possibly subdue rising costs.

"I think in a lot of cases, they have more power than they realize," said James Frogue, director of the health and human services task force for American Legislative Exchange Council. "Most of the health-care regulation takes place at the state level."

Right now, said Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, the Sharpsburg Republican who organized the Wednesday meeting, the General Assembly would have to be content taking "pot shots" at the problem in the short term while looking for long-term solutions. He suggests putting together a commission to recommend a comprehensive health-care policy. …