As Georgia GOP Senators work to block federal health insurance, Atlanta lawmakers vote for reform

Local lawmakers across the South are stepping up to weigh in on the health care debate. On Monday the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution calling on Congress to enact "comprehensive, quality, affordable health care legislation for all Americans."
This resolution represents a major departure from the recent action of conservative Georgia lawmakers. Earlier this month, a group of Georgia Senate Republicans announced plans to introduce an amendment to the state constitution during this winter's legislative session that would would opt Georgia out of federal health insurance reform, reports the Atlanta Business Chronicle. The state's constitutional change would be subject to a statewide referendum in November 2010, and is aimed at stopping federal lawmakers from enforcing health care reform in the state. 

The Georgia legislation is based on the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declares that any power not explicitly granted the federal government in the Constitution is preserved for the states. As Think Progress reports, "tentherism" is just the latest in a series of far-right political movements to counter the reform efforts of the Obama administration.

Other Georgia lawmakers say that health care reform, inclusive of a government-run public option, is necessary to reduce the costs of health insurance. According to Atlanta Business Chronicle:
The [Atlanta City Council's resolution], sponsored by a dozen council members, cites the rising costs of health care and health insurance and the growing number of uninsured Georgians as reasons for federal lawmakers to act on the issue.
It also points to decreasing competition among health insurance companies, a trend revealed by the American Medical Association in a report showing that the number of health insurers in the U.S. has declined by nearly 20 percent since 2000.
In Georgia, according to the 2007 study by the American Medical Association [pdf], two insurers -- WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group -- hold a 69 percent share of the market. WellPoint, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield licensee, holds a whopping 61 percent of that share. In the Atlanta metro region both of those insurers hold a 66 percent share of the market. 

As Facing South has reported, conservatives and other opponents of the "public option" for health care say that it would hurt competition. But as researchers point out, in the health insurance market, introducing another choice -- a public health insurance option -- would actually dramatically increase competition. Due to unprecedented consolidation of the health insurance market over the past decade, the industry has created near-monopolies in all Southern states, driving up the cost of insurance. 

The U.S. Justice Department considers a market "highly concentrated" if one company holds more than a 42 percent share of that market. As a recent report on health industry consolidation notes, these near-monopolies mean that an insurer could raise premiums and/or reduce the variety of plan or quality of services offered to customers with impunity. 

Shrinking competition among health insurance companies is also a major cause of spiraling health insurance costs. In fact, health insurance premiums in Georgia have skyrocketed, increasing 73 percent from 2000 to 2007. Advocates of a public option plan, including President Obama, say that it would provide needed competition to force price reductions from private health plans.

Fearing more competition, insurers continue to fight the public option. WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group, Georgia and the nation's two largest carriers, have spent millions to lobby against a public option. Both insurers were recently accused of violating labor laws when they pressured their employees to contact members of Congress and lobby against health care reform proposals that the companies disagreed with.

And as the Huffington Post pointed out today about WellPoint: 
WellPoint is one of the insurance industry giants leading the charge against President Barack Obama's plan to create a "public option" - essentially an expansion of Medicare for working families - to create more competition and give consumers more choices. 

Ironically, WellPoint is one of a handful of insurance companies that have a virtual iron grip on the insurance market in almost every state. The American Medical Association reports that 94 percent of insurance markets in more than 300 metropolitan areas are now highly concentrated. WellPoint runs Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans in 14 states. In Maine, for example, WellPoint controls 78% of the health insurance market. It dominates the market in Missouri, with 68% of the business, as well as in its home state of Indiana (60%), Georgia (61%), New Hampshire (51%), Kentucky (59%), Connecticut (55%), Virginia (50%), Ohio (41%, with the next largest company garnering only 17% of the market), and Colorado (with 29%, larger than runner-up United Health Group, with 24% of market share). In New York and California, WellPoint ranks second, with 21% and 20% of the health insurance market, respectively, in those two huge states. 

These near-monopolistic conditions -- where one or two companies dominate the insurance market --allow big corporations like WellPoint to drive up premiums, restrict coverage, and take advantage of consumers. Nationwide, health insurance premiums have been rising much faster than family incomes. No wonder WellPoint wants to quash potential competition from a public option. 

To thwart such competition, and to limit government regulation of its practices, WellPoint has spent millions of dollars - dollars it gets from the families and businesses paying sky-high premiums - to wield political influence. 

According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, WellPoint employees and associates have contributed more than $922,000 to federal political campaigns over the past two and a half years. And the corporation has spent $7.8 million lobbying Washington policymakers over the same time period. 

Not surprisingly, these legal bribes aren't given out randomly. The top recipients are key members of the Senate and House with influence over health care policy, including Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a leading opponent of the "public option" in health care reform. 

Moreover, WellPoint is a seasoned player in the Washington "revolving door" game. For example, WellPoint's former Vice President for Public Policy and External Affairs, Elizabeth Fowler, now serves as Senior Counsel to Baucus. Fowler's predecessor in Baucus' office, Michelle Easton, currently lobbies for Wellpoint as a principal at Tarplin, Downs, & Young, a well-connected lobbying firm. 

As the debate continues to heat up in Congress, health reform advocates are more organized than ever. Across the nation Tuesday, health care reform grassroots groups and advocates are attending rallies and protests in more than 150 different cities. Groups are visiting WellPoint's Indianapolis headquarters and the headquarters of other insurers -- to highlight abuses in the industry. The national day of protest is sponsored by Health Care for America Now, a coalition of more than 1,000 health care groups advocating for public health insurance, MoveOn.Org, and others. 

Advocates hope that public mobilizations will help push Congress -- including several conservative Senate Democrats now resisting a public option -- to enact significant reform.