Study says Medicaid expansion would enrich state

The theme of the Affordable Care Act as a job creator in Georgia gained steam Wednesday after release of a report on the projected benefits of Medicaid expansion.

An estimated 70,000 new jobs would be gained if Gov. Nathan Deal approved expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, according to the report, from Georgia State University’s Bill Custer.

The study, commissioned and released by Healthcare Georgia Foundation, also said expansion would produce an economic impact statewide of $8 billion annually.

Deal, though, has remained steadfast in his opposition to Medicaid expansion, citing an estimated $4.5 billion cost to the state over 10 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year tossed out the provision of the ACA that would have penalized states for not expanding Medicaid. That made expansion optional, with individual states deciding whether the federal incentives offered are worth it.

In Georgia, more than 690,000 low-income people would be added to the Medicaid rolls under the ACA.

Deal’s decision doesn’t mean the state can’t pursue expansion in the future, and consumer groups, patient advocacy organizations and medical provider groups are seeking to get the governor to reconsider.

Other wild cards remain. Republican Gov. Rick Scott of neighboring Florida has not made a decision on expansion. Six other Republican governors, meanwhile, have decided to take the federal money and expand, including Arizona’s Jan Brewer and Ohio’s John Kasich.

A Florida decision in favor of expansion could affect Georgia, said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, a consumer advocacy group.

“Georgia doesn’t exist in isolation,’’ she said Wednesday. “If we don’t do this, that [federal] money goes to other states. We could probably lose jobs and fall backwards in terms of health indicators. It won’t make us an attractive place to come live and practice medicine.’’

Meanwhile, the General Assembly is considering a House resolution to create a study committee to explore improving the state’s Medicaid program. Among the topics it could consider are expansion and how other states handle their Medicaid programs.

Deal has noted that Georgia’s current Medicaid program has faced big financial shortfalls. The governor Wednesday signed legislation that authorizes the board of the state Department of Community Health to implement a hospital provider fee. That would help avert a projected $500 million hole in the Medicaid budget.

The Custer report said expansion of Medicaid — a program jointly financed by the federal and state governments — would bring an estimated $40 billion of federal money into Georgia over the first decade of implementation.

Additional economic activity, the study said, would generate increased state and local tax revenue by an estimated $276.5 million annually.

Although the Atlanta region contains about half of all Georgians, fewer than 37 percent of the jobs created by Medicaid expansion would occur in the Atlanta region, the report said. Improving the economy in many struggling areas outside the Atlanta region has been a state priority for years.

Other states have developed estimates of new jobs created by expansion.

They include:

* North Carolina, where a state-commissioned study concluded that Medicaid expansion would create 23,000 jobs through 2021, along with another 23,000 spinoff positions.

* South Carolina, where a study predicted that the influx of $11 billion in federal money would lead to 44,000 new jobs in the state.

* Indiana, where expanding the Medicaid program would generate more than 30,000 jobs through 2020, according to the Indiana Hospital Association.

* Florida, where a study by the Florida Hospital Association projected the extra health care spending would support an additional 56,000 jobs in the state.

Custer said Wednesday that his job creation estimates are similar to the per-dollar impact cited in the North Carolina and South Carolina studies. “We’re right in the same ballpark,’’ he said.

Reasons for a higher job impact here, he said,  include the fact that Georgia currently has stricter Medicaid eligibility standards and a higher population.

Custer said the $8 billion economic output figure takes into account the estimated cost to the state that Deal has cited, along with increased taxes paid by Georgians.

But Kelly McCutchen, head of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, told the AJC that the state can’t afford its current Medicaid program.

“You would have a large economic impact if you drop $4 billion out of a helicopter, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,’’ McCutchen said.

Just over half of the jobs created by Medicaid expansion would be in health care, the report said. Non-medical industries that would see job growth include real estate establishments; food service and beverage businesses; employment services; wholesale trade businesses; and services to buildings and dwellings.

Besides the employment increases, Tim Sweeney of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said expansion would improve many Georgians’ health. “Businesses will have more productive employees,” he added.