Healthcare generally and Medicaid expansion specifically dominated the forum last week for candidates for Georgia Senate District 46 and House District 117 and House District 119 organized by the Athens Community Agenda.
Democrats Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace, incumbents representing the 117th and 119th Georgia House districts respectively, said they support Medicaid expansion, as did Marisue Hilliard, the Democratic candidate for Georgia Senate District 46.
Incumbent Republican Senator Bill Cowsert did not support Medicaid expansion, though he said he expected bills to be introduced in the 2019 session of the General Assembly that would seek permission from the federal government to expand Medicaid with waivers of existing rules.
Republican Houston Gaines, challenging Gonzalez in the 117th House District race, and Republican Marcus Wiedower, challenging Wallace in the 119th House District race, did not attend the forum, held at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Athens.
Gaines was present for the informal gathering before the forum but left before questioning began because of a commitment he said he had made in Barrow County, a small part of which is in the 117th House District.
Wiedower said he learned of the forum shortly before it took place and had a business commitment he could not break.
Senate Candidates First
Linda Davis, from Athens Community Agenda, acknowledged at the beginning of the forum on Oct. 15 that she had sent out invitations late because of a death in the family. Davis is a member of the Clarke County Board of Education.
|Panel: Blackwell, Pearson And Davis (L-R)|
She said this was the 13th such forum organized by her group, a network of various community leaders, agencies, businesses, social and civic organizations, and residents.
Wiedower told me in an email message on Oct. 16 that, “Unfortunately, I didn't know about the forum until last week, and I already had a work commitment scheduled.”
Questions came from a panel of three moderators, Kimberly Davis, a freelance journalist, and Michele Pearson and Shane Blackwell, both representing Northeast Georgia Business Alliance, and from the audience of about 30.
Senate candidates Cowsert and Hilliard were called to the front of the room first and were given a chance to introduce themselves.
The first question from Kimberly Davis was on Medicaid expansion.
“I think it is a good first step,” Hilliard said, noting that Georgia was one of only 14 states that has not expanded Medicaid. “It is not all we can do, but it certainly is a first step.”
Cowsert said the state had increased its spending on medical needs in the last decade, including increased reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals. He acknowledged this did not improve coverage rates.
Cowsert And Hilliard: Work Requirements
Cowsert and Hilliard next were asked if they supported work requirements for Medicaid recipients.
“I do think that able-bodied, healthy people should be able to work in some degree if they are able to draw down the benefits that you are referring to,” Cowsert said. “That wouldn’t apply to somebody that is disabled and unable to work.”
“I would say generally I do not support that,” Hilliard said. “Most of the Medicaid recipients are children and the disabled.”
Hilliard referred to this type of a requirement as “a war on poor people. I believe there is better ways to enable our poor folks to have coverage.”
Cowsert And Hilliard: Voter Suppression
Panelist Davis noted news reports that 53,000 voter registrations had been put on hold by the Georgia Secretary of State Office, with 70 percent of those belonging to African-Americans.
“If elected, what would you do to prevent the disenfranchisement of eligible Georgia voters?” she asked.
Hilliard said that the policy of exact match of documents, which has led to the creation of the list of 53,000, “was a very dangerous policy to enact.
“To boil something down to an exact match is guaranteed to disenfranchise some people,” she said, “and that’s not good.”
“I do think it important to encourage participation in the voting process and making voting as accessible as possible,” Cowsert said, but he called the report of 53,000 voters being put on hold “election politics.”
Cowsert’s wife and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s wife are sisters, and Kemp is secretary of state
“Are you saying you don’t believe the reports about 53,000?” Kimberly Davis asked.
“I don’t think the numbers reported are accurate. I am sure there may have been some,” Cowsert responded. “I think you’re dealing with election politics with this because the vast number of voters has increased tremendously since the last election cycle.”
Cowsert And Hilliard: Predator Bill
The General Assembly earlier this year did not pass a bill, called the Hidden Predator Act, that would have allowed older adults to sue people they say molested them when they were children.
“The issue is how long can a person go back and file suit for sexual abuse,” Cowsert said. “There should be a length of time you are allowed to go back,” Cowsert said, because defendants are unable to defend themselves if too long a time lapses.
“Georgia is considered one of the most predator friendly states in the United States,” Hilliard said, and the 2018 legislation was an attempt to change that.
Hilliard also said Cowsert should have not participated in the vote because his law firm represented one of three local churches being sued for not protecting minors.
Cowsert And Hilliard: School And Tax Credit
The candidates were asked where their children attended school.
Hilliard, a retired U.S. Forest Service administrator who lives in Oconee County, said that all three of her children went to public schools in Oconee County “and received an excellent education.”
Cowsert, an Athens attorney, said his three children attended Athens Academy, a private school in Oconee County.
Georgia law allows private citizens and corporations to receive tax credits for donations to Student Scholarship Organizations, which then can give scholarships to students to attend private schools.
Those scholarships cannot exceed the average state and local expenditures per student in public schools in the state. At present, that amount is $9,817, and the candidates were asked if they wanted to raise that cap.
Hilliard said the cap should not be raised. “We should be doing everything we can to support our public schools,” she said. “It’s not benefitting the state to have tax credits to support private schools.”
“I voted against that program until we fully funded the public school system,” Cowsert said.
“Then I saw it as opening up other opportunities for people who could otherwise not afford to attend a private school to have these scholarships made available to them,” Cowsert said. He said he does not think the amount needs to be increased.
Cowsert And Hilliard: Closing Comments
In his closing comments, Cowsert said he was going to focus on health care in the 2019 legislative session.
“I think it is mandatory that we have adequate, accessible health care for all of our citizens,” Cowsert said. “I am especially concerned about the less populated areas of the state.”
In addition, Cowsert said, “Everybody needs access to high speed internet.”
Hilliard said she would focus on education, health care and a living wage.
“Too many Georgians are not earning a living wage,” she said. “I support a $15 minimum wage.”
“I support expanded Medicaid,” she repeated.
The state also should have a need’s based scholarship program to held address student debt, Hilliard said.
Denson For Gaines
Linda Davis allowed Athens Mayor Nancy Denson to read a four-minute opening statement on behalf of Gaines, who ran her campaign for re-election in 2014 when he was a student at the University of Georgia.
“I was born and raised in this community,” Gaines said in the statement read by Denson. “My grandfather was Superior Court Judge Joe Gaines. My parents, Joe and Vicki Gaines, instilled in me the responsibility for helping others. Our entire family has worked to make a difference.”
Gaines mentioned his experiences as student government president in his senior year and said “I will bring a fresh perspective and renewed energy to the Capitol and I’ll always work to listen and work to deliver real results.” Gaines graduated in 2017.
“People are tired of the partisan politics that unfortunately this district has seen over the last year,” the statement continued “It’s time for a change. I run my campaign based on issues that matter to this district.”
Gonzalez And Wallace: Introductions
Gonzalez and Wallace talked about growing up in working class environments when they introduced themselves.
Gonzalez noted that her father was in the military for 30 years and served in Vietnam. She said that she has worked since she was 14 and is a mother and a grandmother.
She is an Athens attorney.
Wallace, from Oconee County, said he was a “father, husband, soccer coach, elder in his church and software developer.”
Wallace said his father ran a shrimp boat in Louisiana, where he was born, and his “mom cleaned bars on weekends.” He said he knew what it was like to need food stamps and assisted lunch programs in school.
Gonzalez And Wallace: Medicaid
“When you look at the life toll, it actually becomes an issue that we cannot afford not to expand Medicaid,” Gonzalez said in response to the first question from the panel.
“Some critics say, ‘I don’t want my money being spent on other people’,” Wallace said. “I’ve got really bad news for those people. Your money is already being spent on other people.”
Wallace said that about 50 percent of health care in this country is being provided by Medicare, and “it is amazing when people turn 65 how Medicare becomes a program they are in favor of.”
Another 15 to 20 percent of health care is covered by Medicaid, he said. He said Georgia should expand Medicaid.
When hospitals have to write off costs for “indigent care,” he said, that expense is passed along to people who can pay, and that is an inefficient way to cover health care costs.
Gonzalez And Wallace: Balancing Needs
A question from the audience asked the two candidates to balance the needs of the community, including medical needs.
Wallace said local communities should be allowed to set the minimum wage, that there should be more focus on job creation, that there is an “overemphasis” on college and it was important to develop trade school programs for jobs that don’t require a college education.
“Government should be as big as the people need it to be. Not any bigger. Not any smaller,” Gonzalez said. “Government has to provide for its citizens. Those services cost money. They get that money from collecting taxes.”
Gonzalez said she was not advocating raising taxes. She said the state wastes money now on a fishing museum in Perry and funding for the Georgia Aquarium.
Gonzalez said it is important not to put a “stigma” on people who don’t go to college and to recognize that the biggest threat to jobs “is not immigrants but robotics.”
Gonzalez And Wallace: Work Requirements
On work requirements for Medicaid, Wallace said:
“I don’t know that that’s really a problem, so I would not be in support of it until I have some numbers and figures right in front of me that show that that is an actual problem we’re facing in the state.”
“If they are not healthy, isn’t that going to be a bigger drain on what we’re doing?” Gonzalez asked.
Gonzalez said investing in people’s health is a way of investing in a community.
Gonzalez And Wallace: Sanctuary Cities
The panel wanted to know if the two candidates supported Athens becoming a sanctuary city.
“First of all, there is no such thing as a sanctuary city,” Gonzalez said. “What I do support is the policy that Sheriff Ira Edwards is now following, which means that he will not hold an individual for nonviolent crimes until ICE comes to deport them. That is what I support.”
ICE refers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Edwards is sheriff of Athens-Clarke County.
“There is a lot of confusion around this particular issue,” Wallace said. “And when you dig into what the law says, which is not necessarily straightforward, you see that our local sheriff, the constitutionally appointed office for every county, they have the discretion as to how they interpret that portion of the law.
“And I advocate that we are frugal and smart with our money,” Wallace said. “I do not want to see us spending local dollars on federal job responsibilities, and that is what some folks advocate for when they say they don’t want to see sanctuary cities.”
Gonzalez And Wallace: Minimum Wage
A question from the audience linked the minimum wage with Medicare, causing the candidates to deal with both issues.
Wallace said that the current state minimum wage of $5.15, if adjusted for inflation since 1970, would be more than $20 per hour. No adjustment has been made.
“What that means is they don’t have access to health care because they can’t afford it,” Wallace said. “The cost of health care outpaces inflation.”
“I don’t think it makes sense across the board to take the minimum wage to $15 per hour,” Wallace said. “I support finding the right solution for the different towns and counties.”
“I don’t know that Medicare for all is the right solution,” he said. “But I do know that everybody needs access to healthcare.”
“If we don’t make enough money,” Gonzalez said, people “become a burden to the community at large. Somebody has to pay for these kids to get food. Somebody has to pay for people in the ER. Somebody has to pay for the public transportation. Somebody always has to pay.”
“People want purpose with their work,” she said. “They just don’t want to be surviving paycheck to paycheck. They want to be able to give gladly when they do their tithing in church on Sundays and give a little bit more when it’s the roof that needs to be done.”
Gonzalez And Wallace: Healthcare In Rural Georgia
The final question was about the role of nurses and other healthcare workers in solving healthcare problems in the rural part of the state.
“We have six counties that don’t even have a general practitioner in Georgia,” Gonzalez said. “We have counties where women have to go 50 to 75 miles in order to see a GYN (gynecologist).
“We have things that we can do to help insure our rural communities that they do have the healthcare that they need,” Gonzalez said. “I think nurses are definitely one way to go.”
“We are one of the worst states in the nation with respect to maternal mortality,” Wallace said. “There is a lot we need to do to improve access to healthcare.”
He said allowing nurses to provide more medical services is one of those things. He also called for “access to telemedicine” and broadband generally.
Gonzalez And Wallace: Closing Comments
The two candidates were asked to reflect on their accomplishments in their first years as legislators in making their closing comments.
Wallace said he did not stop working when the 2018 session ended in March and said he was proud of the fact that the governor had relied on his expertise in techology in vetoing a cyber security bill.
The bill would have had unintended consequences, Wallace said.
Gonzalez said she was proud of being able to defeat legislation that would have allowed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to give fingerprint data to the FBI, even though the fingerprints included those of people who had not committed any crime.
Gonzalez said she successfully argued that “we have to make sure that we do not mix innocent people’s fingerprint data with criminals’ data.”
Both Wallace and Gonzalez asked to be given a chance to return to the legislature in 2019.
Wallace made no reference to Wiedower, but Gonzalez made an obvious comparison to Gaines.
Gonzalez said people would be picking in the election between “somebody who is going to listen to you, somebody who is going to be a people’s representative...or somebody who’s just looking at this as a stepping stone to a political career.”
I was not able to attend the forum because I was attending the Oconee County Board of Education meeting held at the same time.
Penny Mills did attend and recorded the video below. Mills counted 31 people in attendance when the forum began.
All of Oconee County falls into the 46th Senate District.
Three of Oconee County’s 13 precincts–Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart–are in the 117th House District and are joined by parts of Barrow, Jackson and Clarke counties. Clarke County is dominant.
The 119th House District is split roughly equally between Oconee and Clarke counties.
Hilliard began her opening comments at 4:35 in the video below and was followed Cowsert.
The first question to the two on Medicaid expansion is at 11:25 in the video.
The question on work requirements for Cowsert and Hilliard is at 16:57.
The question to the two on election security is at 19:46.
The question on the predator bill is at 25:40.
The question on the education of Cowsert’s and Hilliard’s children is at 30:06.
The question on private school tax credits is at 31:11.
The closing comments of Cowsert and Hilliard are at 32:38.
Mayor Denson’s presentation of Gaines’ letter is at 40:33.
The opening comments of Gonzalez and Wallace are at 46:11.
The responses of Gonzalez and Wallace to Medicaid expansion are at 55:11.
The question on balancing community needs is at 1:02:59.
The question on work requirements for Medicaid is at 1:12:06.
The responses of Gonzalez and Wallace to the question on sanctuary cities is at 1:20:00.
Responses of Gonzalez and Wallace to the minimum wage and Medicare are at 1:21:52.
Responses to the question on nurses and rural medical care are at 1:30:07.
Closing comments of Gonzalez and Wallace are at 1:35:01.