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Jim Galloway, Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy

Oops. Closing rural hospitals would be ‘unthinkable,’ state lawmaker now says

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State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, has retreated from her position that some rural Georgia hospitals need to close. AJC file/Elissa Eubanks

Our AJC colleague Aaron Gould Sheinin opens your day with this significant bit of hard news:

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, said Wednesday that closing rural hospitals is an “unthinkable proposition” — two days after telling an Atlanta radio station that some rural hospitals “need to close.”

The chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Cooper told the AJC that closing hospitals “would have serious consequences on the affected community, hurting it economically and limiting access to acute care for Georgians.”

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blogBut she said there is a serious need for discussion and planning for the future as the economic situation facing rural hospitals continues to erode.

“If we don’t act to make real, substantive changes, we very well could be faced with the hard reality of hospital closures in rural parts of this state, no matter how many short gap measures we take, leaving many communities without the economic engine and access to care people depend on,” she said.

Cooper had come under fire since telling WABE (90.1FM) on Monday that some Georgia communities are too small to support a hospital.

“When your census is that low and you have hospital administration and you have to have 24 hour-a-day care and you have to have a pharmacy and all the other things that go with a hospital and your census runs at just minute number of patients then I think it’s time to look at the fact that maybe they need to go to regional hospitals,” Cooper told WABE’s Jonathan Shapiro.

The state’s decision not to expand Medicaid rolls, as urged under the federal Affordable Care Act, has put many Georgia hospitals – including Grady Memorial in Atlanta – in a difficult fiscal bind. Gov. Nathan Deal has refused to expand the program, citing what he said were hidden costs.

Cooper’s original comments prompted Jimmy Lewis, longtime lobbyist and activist for Hometown Health, which serves dozens of rural hospitals, on Tuesday to say that her position “that rural hospitals need to close is an imposition of Atlanta-based big urbanized government telling a rural community what to do.”

Lewis on Wednesday said that Cooper’s new comments make it clear that there must be a debate at the highest level of state government about rural health care.

“The health care debate as a system-wide debate in Georgia has not been dealt with in over 10 years,” Lewis said. “We are at a point where all bad things are intersecting: Bad economy, Obamacare, reimbursement complexity, physician shortage, state health benefit plan, cost reductions – all bad things are intersecting today and if there was a margin, it would be bad. But since these providers have no margin, it’s all exacerbated.”

Matt Caseman, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Association, was pleased with Cooper’s latest comments.

“Representative Cooper is correct and I thank her for what she said,” Caseman told the AJC. “All you have to do is talk with the people where the hospitals have shut down and they will tell you about the devastating impact it has had on the community. More hospitals closing would be catastrophic to not only rural Georgia, but our entire state.”

***

The Deal administration’s controversial decision to go with a single company to manage the health care of 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents is about to hit the campaign trail.

State Superintendent John Barge, who is challenging Deal, told us he’s calling for an independent investigation into how Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia was awarded the lucrative contract.

That question is at the center of a lawsuit involving UnitedHealthcare, one of two companies that held the main contract until this month. The company argued the Department of Community Health, whose leaders are appointed by Deal, had engaged in “state-sponsored bid-rigging” and that the switch would lead to higher fees and less options.

Barge, whose core constituency is educators, said the switch has led to “really poor” insurance coverage. From the interview:

“State employees right now are beginning to see the negative impact of the new plan,” said Barge. “It appears the carrier who had our previous insurance was closed out of an almost secret bid process. I have nothing against Blue Cross and Blue Shield. I just want to ensure the process is fair. And based on what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem that way. And we certainly don’t have as good of coverage.”

***

The proposal to overhaul the medical malpractice system isn’t likely to go very far after legislators and Deal put it on the backburner. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t still getting guff over it.

Exhibit A: State Sen. Josh McKoon sent a letter to constituents defending his opposition to the measure, Senate Bill 141, after the Patients for Fair Compensation PAC ran radio ads suggesting he was choosing trial lawyers over patients. McKoon said he consulted attorneys, insurance agents, physicians and patients before making up his mind. Wrote McKoon:

“The feedback has been unanimous, SB 141 would be unconstitutional, it would be bad for patients, doctors and the entire health care system in Georgia. … I do not care how many thousands of dollars these special interests are willing to spend to distort my clear conservative record–I will not be deterred in standing up for the Constitution and your individual rights.”

***

It’s either a timely release of a string of endorsements or a sign that some conservatives are starting to coalesce behind a candidate for the seat being vacated by Rep. Phil Gingrey.

Former state Sen. Barry Loudermilk’s camp has rolled out the endorsements of Georgia Conservatives in Action and state Sen. John Albers in the last few days. Now they trumpet the support of Erick Erickson, who talks conservative politics at AM750, which is also owned by AJC parent company Cox Communications:

“This is not a ding on his opponents … I know Barry Loudermilk is willing to tell his own side no. I do believe that the past is a pretty good indicator of how people behave in the future and he in the past was willing to tell his own side no.

***

Ken who? Virginia’s new Democratic attorney general is taking quite a different path from his predecessor, failed gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.

Attorney General Mark Herring, the Washington Post reports, plans to ask a federal court to strike down Virginia’s ban on gay marriage.

***

Last week we told you how Gov. Nathan Deal had given his tentative support to the “opt in” approach to guns. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told our colleague Kristina Torres in an interview Wednesday he supports that strategy as well. Said Cagle:

“Provided that there are the appropriate measures built around safety and the well-being and the concern of all, I could probably be comfortable with a campus carry approach. If an individual (such as a college or a church) wants to allow someone to be granted the right to carry under a concealed weapon permit, they should have that right.”

He also joined Deal and other GOP leaders by saying he supports a move toward privatizing some DFCS services this legislative session:

“There are a number of steps that have to occur before we can really have something concrete in terms of implementation, but I do think that legislation needs to be put in place this year.”

***

You can reset your doomsday clocks for sometime in late February. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew informed Congress on Wednesday that the nation will hit the debt limit on Feb. 7, but he can pull off “extraordinary measures” to prevent a default until late in the month.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner had the following reply, via CBS:

“The Speaker has said that we should not default on our debt, or even get close to it, but a ‘clean’ debt limit increase simply won’t pass in the House. We hope and expect the White House will work with us on a timely, fiscally-responsible solution.”

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