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Georgia General Assembly 2014 session begins

8:29 PM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
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Video: Georgia Legislature: Abused Children, the Uninsured

Video: How does the Georgia Legislature plan to fix DFCS?

Demonstrators called on Georgia's Governor to expand Medicaid coverage to those who cannot afford insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Downtown Atlanta, January 12, 2014.

ATLANTA -- Some of the most vulnerable among us may not be able to travel to the Georgia State Capitol in downtown Atlanta over the next several weeks to speak out, and to lobby the legislature, on their own behalf.

But the political debate over their fate officially begins on Monday when the General Assembly convenes its 40-day session of wheeling, dealing and lawmaking.

The fate of a lot of children, and people in need of healthcare, could depend on what the legislators decide.

COMPLETE COVERAGE | DFCS
COMPLETE COVERAGE | The Affordable Care Act

The legislature is expecting a budget surplus during the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

So lawmakers may put more money into public education -- perhaps money for reducing class sizes, and for returning to a 180-day school year, and for teacher pay raises.

They'll look at possibly providing full scholarships for technical-college students, funded by the lottery.

And they will look at more money for DFCS, to help protect children from abuse and neglect.

Some are calling on Governor Nathan Deal, (R) GA, to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia, under the federal Affordable Care Act.

They say there are hundreds of thousands of Georgians who can't afford the Affordable Care Act, but who could qualify for Medicaid -- if the governor would expand the coverage to include them.

But the governor and many state legislators have been calling on the federal government to fund Medicaid expansion, because they say Georgia taxpayers just don't have the billions of dollars that the expansion would cost.

So that issue, and other health care issues related to the Affordable Care Act, may come before the legislature this year.

Sunday night, on the eve of the 40-days of debate over potentially life and death legislation, state lawmakers and Governor Deal gathered at the annual "wild hog supper" at the old train depot across the street from the Capitol to eat pork and plot strategy.

Just outside, a small group -- with a loud bullhorn aimed at the depot -- pleaded with the Governor to expand Medicaid, to save lives.

"Saving the lives of Georgians is not partisan," said one of the protestors, Sen. Vincent Fort, (D), Atlanta. "This would not only save hundreds of lives over the next year here in Georgia, but it would also bring economic development to Georgia. 70,000 jobs over the next ten years, $82 Billion worth of economic development over the next ten years. This is a non partisan issue, Governor Deal. Saving the lives of Georgians is not partisan. Do the right thing by Georgians, do the right thing by expanding Medicaid."

But Gov. Deal told 11Alive's Jon Shirek, "I made a decision a long time ago that the State of Georgia was not in a financial position to afford to expand Medicaid."

The Governor said that just by keeping Medicaid coverage as it is, the ACA is going to add to Georgia's costs.  "We are going to see in excess of a hundred million dollars of additional costs attributable to the Affordable Care Act in our Medicaid program, even though we're not expanding it."

Sen. Fort believes the state can afford to expand it. "Other Republican governors in other states have done Medicaid expansion and found a way to do it."

Gov. Deal disagrees. "I think you will find that about half the states have made the same decision that I have, that they do not feel we should expand an entitlement program at a time when people are paying as much tax as they can afford to pay."

One proposal that may pass the legislature in the next several weeks is a new plan proposed by Gov. Deal to protect abused and neglected children, the very children who have been dying in state care.

The governor's plan calls for $27 Million over three years, with the first installment in 2014, for more DFCS case workers.

"The first thing that we're doing is putting extra money in the budget to hire additional case workers and supervisors," the Governor said Sunday night. "We're also hiring an additional number of those who take the intake calls, because many times that's where the information is not properly passed along. We're also going back and reviewing cases that have been closed in the recent past to make sure that there are not children who still need attention from DFCS. It is going to be over a three year period. We will hire in excess of 500 case workers. It is a substantial financial committment, but I do believe it's the right thing to do."

How will he convince the legislators to go along?

"Well I think all of them understand that we need to do everything we can to protect children. And this is one way we can do it by reducing the case load on our workers that are currently serving, giving them additional help, and giving them additional supervision. That will allow them to spend more time on each case and not have to make hurried decisions.... This is a priority. But it's one of many priorities. So we can't ignore it, it is something that has been a problem in our state, off and on for many, many years. Finding the right answer is very difficult to do. But if we can keep the case load to a minimal level, of about 15 cases per case worker, then it should be something that is manageable, and we should have adequate personnel to be able to supervise those cases."

House Speaker David Ralston, (R) Blue Ridge, supports the Governor on the increased DFCS funding, and he said again Sunday night that he is willing to look at alternatives, such as overhauling DFCS, as well.

"We have had some things that have happened that frankly are heartbreaking. A lot of things we do here [at the Capitol] don't keep me awake at night. But when children are abused or even have come to tragic deaths while in foster care, that keeps me awake.... It's going to be a priority for us as we go through the session.... And when you're talking about children, I think we have to afford that much [perhaps $27 Million]. And so I think that is a good beginning. I think we also, though, in addition to spending the added resources, we have to look at ways that we do things, and we have to ask ourselves, is there a better way, and I think we'll be doing some of that, too.... I know that a lot of people have suggested the idea of privatizing some of this work. I'm open to taking a look at that, I want to look and see how that has gone in other states. I think that we have to think outside the box when it comes to taking care of those who can't take care of themselves, and we're going to do that."

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