After watching Georgia politicians quarrel for years over the issue, state residents will soon begin purchasing their own health insurance plans as required under a new system created by President Barack Obama's administration.
Starting Tuesday, those without employer-provided health insurance can visit an online exchange run by the U.S. government and purchase policies. The system is designed to help people shop for policies and determine whether they qualify for financial support to defray the costs.
The opening of the exchanges is one of the most direct ways that Americans will be affected by a policy shift hotly debated both in Washington and in Georgia's Statehouse. Under the Affordable Care Act, virtually all Americans will be required to carry health insurance or face fines. The law also bans insurance companies from turning away people in poor health or charging them more money.
Residents have had multiple questions for Bill Rencher, the health access program director for Georgia Watch, a consumer organization that has tried to educate Georgia's residents about the pending changes.
"How much are the premiums going to cost?" Rencher said, discussing some off the most common questions. "Will I be affected by the mandate? What about my kid? What about my wife?"
The exchanges are for those without insurance. People who receive health care coverage through their employers will not use the exchanges. Studies released this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed the lowest-cost silver-level policy on the Georgia exchanges would average around $304 per month for an individual.
Georgia consumers can pick from four tiers of coverage ranging from bronze to platinum. Each plan covers the same benefits and caps yearly out-of-pocket expenses at $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for families. The key difference among the plans is the cost-sharing by the consumer. Bronze plans have the lowest premiums but require consumers to cover 40 percent of costs. By comparison, platinum plans have higher premiums but require a consumer to cover 10 percent of medical costs.
"I was actually pretty thrilled with the prices," Rencher said. "They were more reasonable than I thought they were going to be. I tell people that affordable doesn't mean dirt cheap. Don't expect it to be free."
Georgia's Republican leaders have balked at expanding the state's Medicaid program to cover more of the uninsured. Under the 2010 health care law, the U.S. government would pay 100 percent of the costs of expanding Medicaid from 2014 to 2016. The federal share would gradually decrease to 90 percent by 2020, with the states paying the remaining 10 percent. But that health care would cover thousands of Georgians who lack it.
Gov. Nathan Deal has joined other Southern Republicans who refused to expand the Medicaid program, saying it would cost the state too much later on. He also declined to have Georgia run the state's health care exchange, so the federal government is.
"I think that is something our state cannot afford," Deal said last year.
Democrats in the General Assembly have argued that Georgia's government should expand the Medicaid program, which they say will help create jobs in the medical industry and offer coverage to those who lack it.
"I was hoping against hope that the governor would make a rational decision based on helping Georgians," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "He's failed to do that."