Throughout the past week, Sonny Perdue walked point for the GOP in Georgia, directing the response to the new health care law passed by Congress.
Republicans of every stripe faithfully lined up behind the governor.
What most people didn’t know was that, at the same time Perdue was leading the charge up Pill Hill, a revolt was brewing within his rear guard at the state Capitol. The target was a basic building block in the Republican concept of national health care.
And the rebellion was led by GOP women, assisted by their Democratic sisters.
The women had managed to stall two bills in the Legislature that would allow individual Georgians to buy their health insurance from out-of-state companies. HB 1184 is sponsored by the governor. A second is SB 407, the creation of state Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta).
Nationwide competition would lower costs, supporters say.
At midweek, Hill’s measure was up for a vote in the Senate. In the midst of the debate, two dozen female members of the House trooped into the opposite chamber and lined its walls — an unnerving display of support for the two women senators attempting to derail the legislation.
One of them was Renee Unterman of Buford, the only woman in the Senate Republican caucus. The Democrat was Nan Orrock of Atlanta. The bill was tabled on a 27-23 vote.
In the House, the governor quickly found himself twisting female arms.
Before it could be ready for the big time, the Republican version of health care would first have to get past a quiet Capitol tradition — a bipartisan alliance of women fiercely devoted to health care issues, especially when it comes to insurance.
For decades, policies sold in Georgia often ignored female complaints. Over the last 25 years, the women at the Capitol had banded together to demand coverage for the essentials — such things as hospital stays after giving birth, contraception, pap smears and mammograms.
Georgia now mandates coverage for 45 specific conditions and treatments in insurance policies.
Many women in the Legislature see the sale of policies from other states — which have varying degrees of regulation — as an attempt by insurance companies to dodge the mandates they’ve worked for. And they fear that consumers will end up being sold complicated policies that don’t cover the basics.
“I have fought for these mandates my whole political career. I’m a former Grady nurse,” Unterman said. “I have serious concern about young people buying insurance, because I know they don’t read those contracts.”
In the House, opposition was being stirred, in part, by state Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta), chairman of the House Children and Youth Committee.
Like Unterman, Manning opposes the new federal health care. “I’m adamantly opposed to anybody mandating that I buy insurance,” she said.
But the health insurance that people do buy should be worth something, Manning maintained. “You don’t get auto insurance without collision. So why would you get health insurance without some of these mandates to protect you from getting these dreaded diseases?”
The screws began tightening at 5 p.m. Friday, the day that bills had to be passed by one chamber or the other – or be declared dead.
The only Republican woman in the Senate was informed that her male colleagues had gathered enough votes to bring back SB 407.
Cheaper insurance is essential when parents are being forced to choose between mortgages and health care, argued Hill, the bill’s sponsor. “Those people who don’t have health insurance have zero mandates,” he said. “Their financial security is at risk every single day.”
But Unterman was told that, if she would join Hill, an amendment would be included that would require out-of-state insurance companies to honor most of Georgia’s coverage requirements.
She did, and the bill passed with two votes to spare. Women from the House again had come to watch in silent protest. They numbered only three. None were Republican.
Afterward, outside the chamber, Unterman wrapped her arms around state Sen. Don Thomas (R-Dalton) and began to cry. Senate Democrats predicted the fix-it amendment that Unterman had agreed to is likely to be stripped away before final passage.
In the House, backers of the governor’s bill were served notice that House women had prepared more than a dozen amendments. So the House rules committee awarded HB 1184 protected status – no amendments would be allowed.
The House debate began shortly after 10 p.m. and lasted an hour. Woman after woman took to the well to protest the measure, but all were Democrats. Only one Republican woman, Penny Houston of Nashville, spoke in favor of the measure – the rest sat silently in their chairs.
The last word went to House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island). “What opponents of the bill are really saying is, the people of Georgia are not smart enough, intelligent enough to be able to read and discern for themselves,” he said. “I don’t need anybody in Washington, D.C., and I surely don’t need anyone in Atlanta, Ga., telling me how to meet my health care needs.”
The governor’s health insurance bill passed easily, 108-55. The women’s alliance had been fractured. Of 10 Republican women, only two voted no: Manning and Rep. Jill Chambers of Atlanta.
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One additional explanation for the lopsided result in the House: Several GOP lawmakers were told that, if they voted for the governor’s out-of-state insurance bill, Americans For Prosperity wouldn’t call them out on their vote for the $169 million hospital bed tax, which also passed Friday.
Virginia Galloway, leader of the anti-tax group’s state chapter, denied the bargain. Galloway said she had told GOP lawmakers that, if they passed HB 236, a zero-based budgeting bill, she wouldn’t turn the bed tax into a scorecard vote.
But the House didn’t pass HB 236. And so Galloway (no relation to this blogger) intends to go after those Republicans who voted to pass the bed tax.
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