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Taking Responsibility

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Governor Nathan Deal’s refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid continues to cause problems – certainly for tens of thousands of Georgians, but also for the governor. Last Wednesday, Karen O’Neal, CEO of the tiny Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Wheeler County, announced the facility’s closing. O’Neal said that for several years the federal government has designated Lower Oconee as a critical-access hospital, providing extra funding for small remote hospitals, often in rural areas, to help them stay afloat. Because the Affordable Care Act was designed with an expansion of Medicaid in mind, federal funding to hospitals that treat the indigent has been cut. But Nathan Deal decided to turn down billions of federal dollars for the expansion of Medicaid. Deal’s decision leaves 620,000 Georgians with no health care and puts dozens of small hospitals, like Lower Oconee, in jeopardy. Deal is just following the party line. State Representative Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, caused a stir when she told WABE, “There are some of those rural hospitals that need to close.” Cooper, who adamantly opposes the health care reform law and the expansion of Medicaid, said some Georgia communities are simply too small for a hospital. Cooper had to walk back her remarks, and pressure has been building for Medicaid expansion. Georgia’s doctors, along with the Georgia Hospital Association, are actively lobbying state legislators in favor of expansion. Republican lawmakers may now be trying to provide some cover for Deal. House Bill 990, sponsored by the governor’s floor leader, among others, would require legislative approval to expand Medicaid rolls, thus taking the heat off Deal. The AJC’s Jim Galloway reported last week that he’d asked Gov. Deal if he supported HB990. According to Galloway, the governor’s response was, “I’m fine with that, yeah.” State Senator Jason Carter, Deal’s Democratic challenger, was quick to comment. Galloway reported that “Carter accused the governor of trying to escape blame for the squeeze that Georgia hospitals are feeling – by handing the decision off to the Legislature. ‘[The bill] is just focused on the political question that’s on the governor’s desk,’ the Atlanta senator said. ‘You’ve got jobs at stake, and you got the governor saying he doesn’t want the responsibility.’” “To me, it is more evidence that he’s doing everything he can in refusing the responsibility of leadership,” Carter said. “It’s an unbelievable example of him passing the buck.” As Galloway also points out, HB990 may be evidence of a lack of confidence in Deal’s re-election. The bill would prevent Carter, should he defeat Deal in November, from expanding Medicaid, and one can only wonder why a governor would be “fine” with stripping the executive branch of power. In either case, the Governor should not hide behind the legislature. He needs to own and defend his position on the issue – if he can. Celia Murray is a member of the Morgan County Democratic Committee.

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