Thu., October 31, 2013 5:31pm (EDT)

Hudgens: ‘Obstructionist’ remark was overblown
By Andy Miller, Georgia Health News
Updated: 6 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
Two months ago, state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens appeared at a GOP event in Rome and made a statement that went viral in Georgia political circles.

“The problem is Obamacare,’’ said Hudgens, an outspoken critic of the health care law. “Let me tell you what we’re doing: Everything in our power to be an obstructionist.’’

During that August appearance, Hudgens described how the state had added its own requirements for the licensing of navigators – people who help consumers obtain coverage through online exchanges.

Georgia Democrats swiftly denounced the commissioner’s speech. They said it was proof that state Republican officials were trying to hinder the exchanges and generally resist implementation of the health care law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

On Thursday, in an interview with Georgia Health News, Hudgens clarified his “obstructionist’’ comment.

“I guess my mouth got away from me,’’ he said, noting that the Floyd County audience that applauded his fiery words was filled with ACA opponents like himself. “There’s nothing I can do to be an obstructionist.’’

The Georgia insurance department has very little impact on the federal law, Hudgens said.

The agency did a review of the premium rates offered in the exchange, and oversees licensing of the insurance navigators who help consumers apply for coverage, he noted.

That licensing, Hudgens said, is necessary to make sure navigators understand programs such as Medicaid and PeachCare in the state, and to run applicants through a background check to make sure felons aren’t hired.

Outside of the navigator licensing, Hudgens said, he has no role in implementing the ACA. But he also made clear that he’s not going out of his way to facilitate a law “that I think is going to collapse our economy.’’

Unwanted Benefits?

The ACA rollout of the insurance exchanges has been anything but smooth, especially in states where the federal government is running the effort, such as Georgia. Technical problems have continually blocked consumer applications, enrollment and even browsing of health plan prices.

And this week, media reports have focused on the cancellation of individual health insurance policies across the nation, a result of their not complying with the ACA minimum requirements for benefits.

Those minimum benefits include maternity coverage, prescription drugs, hospitalization and mental health services.

Hudgens said an estimated 400,000 Georgians have individual coverage today that doesn’t meet those requirements. But if a policyholder can renew his or her policy before Jan. 1, that person can keep that same coverage, he said.

He said some individuals don’t need all the things that the ACA requires to be in health policies. For instance, single men don’t need benefits for children or maternity coverage, he said.

“As I’ve been out in the state, the people I’ve talked to are complaining they’re going to [have to] buy these more expensive, ACA-compliant policies.’’

Hudgens acknowledged that Obamacare will help people with pre-existing health conditions obtain more affordable coverage. But he said the requirement to cover everyone’s existing health problems “is doubling the cost of individual health insurance.’’

He spoke of a 62-year-old woman who’s in a state program for people with health conditions who said her premium was rising from $542 a month to $790 a month, with higher out-of-pocket costs.

The dispute over the ACA, Hudgens said, boils down to a philosophical argument – “Is your health care my responsibility? Is my health care your responsibility? I believe in individual responsibility.’’

Hudgens said that if he could “wave a magic wand,’’ he would like to see repeal of the ACA, and then lawmakers could address problems such as pre-existing condition coverage through “free market solutions.” Congressional Republican efforts to repeal the law have largely stalled out.

At one time, Hudgens supported Georgia running its own health insurance exchange, as Kentucky and 15 other states are currently doing.

He changed his mind, he said, because federal officials turned down Mississippi’s proposal for its exchange, signaling that Georgia would face similar obstacles.

“The federal government would not give us the latitude’’ to run it the way state officials wanted, Hudgens said.

The state insurance department’s call center is getting 15 to 20 calls a day related to the ACA, and is referring them to navigators or to healthcare.gov, agency officials said.

“A lot of it is frustration,’’ Hudgens said.

He recommended that consumers wait to explore their options on healthcare.gov until the bugs are worked out. The White House has pledged to have the online exchanges running properly by the end of November.