A Tea Party threat to Public Health bill?

It appears straightforward, noncontroversial.

The bill would move the state’s Public Health unit out of its current department and make it an independent agency, reporting directly to the governor.

And House Bill 214 breezed through the House with a 151-9 vote, and headed to the state Senate.

But some supporters are concerned that Tea Party activists, who helped sidetrack legislation to create a health insurance exchange, now may be targeting the Public Health bill for defeat.

Those backing the Public Health bill cite an e-mail to legislators from Bill Evelyn, director of the State of Georgia Tea Party, which says the House approval is “the first step’’ in implementing the health care reform law in Georgia.

Evelyn said Wednesday in an interview that he serves as an ‘’idea person’’ for other Tea Party groups in the state. Representatives of two other Tea Party groups could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Evelyn’s linking the Public Health bill to health reform, though, is a claim that sponsors and supporters of the bill describe as misinformation.

The legislation ‘’has nothing to do with ObamaCare,’’ said Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), lead sponsor of HB 214. “It has to do with efficiency of government, and the downsizing of a big state agency.’’

Channell said the state’s Public Health unit ‘’suffers from being buried in massive government bureaucracies.’’

“I’m against the implementation of ObamaCare,’’ Channell added, citing the future cost of the law’s expansion of Medicaid for the state.

And Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who will sponsor the bill in the Senate, noted that the idea of a stand-alone Department of Public Health has existed for years – long before the Obama presidency.

With Georgia’s health statistics ‘’at the bottom of the ladder,’’ Unterman said, the state needs an independent public health agency.

The Division of Public Health is currently part of the Department of Community Health, which runs Medicaid, PeachCare and the State Health Benefit Plan.

Public Health has absorbed millions of dollars of budget cuts in recent years. Meanwhile, Georgia has lagged far behind other states on health indicators including obesity, cardiovascular disease and infant mortality.

A state commission last year recommended the creation of a stand-alone Public Health agency to increase accountability and visibility, among other reasons.

Opposition from Tea Party members Wednesday helped stall House legislation to create a health insurance exchange required under health reform.

But if the courts uphold reform, and the state doesn’t create the insurance exchanges – where individuals and small businesses would seek affordable coverage — the federal government would run Georgia’s exchange in 2014. Here’s the AJC’s report on the exchange issue.

Evelyn said his organization is not a membership group but that he is ‘’close with’’ several Tea Party grass-roots groups. He said that through the Public Health bill, federal mandates will flow through the new department into schools and workplaces. Health reform, he said, is ‘’an incredible intrusion into liberties in the state of Georgia.’’

But Channell said the heart of the reform changes – the expansion of Medicaid – would be run by the Department of Community Health, not the proposed stand-alone public health agency.

Unterman pointed out that a recent proposal to make Public Health a separate agency occurred two years ago. But because the state was creating another new agency at the time, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, she said, it was considered too much change at once.

“Governor Perdue felt it was too much of an infrastructure change,’’ Unterman said.

She said a separate Public Health Department can better combat problems such as a tuberculosis outbreak in Gwinnett County. And Unterman said the Behavioral Health agency is working well as a stand-alone department.

The Public Health bill ‘’has nothing to do with’’ the Affordable Care Act, Unterman said.