GAINESVILLE - Hundreds of residents from across the region turned out Monday morning to hear from a panel of professionals and members of the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee on how the Affordable Care Act is affecting local doctors, insurance companies, small business owners and families.
While the new federal health care law is helping some, many say it's hurting others in rural Georgia, who already face obstacles to medical access.
"This is a job killer," said Congressman Doug Collins, who was among several Georgia lawmakers that heard testimony at the Hall County Government Center.
"It's the ‘Obamacare' act that is causing more burden and more cost and will lead to more restrictions on Americans, not only getting health care, but paying for it."
Georgia Republican Reps. Jack Kingston, Rob Woodall Phil Gingrey and Collins were joined by Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina.
Woodall said the goal was to hear about "real-world implications of the law" and find solutions for reforming health care.
An estimated 400,000 Georgians have received insurance cancellation notices, forcing them to find insurance through a government exchange or in the private market, paying more and having fewer choices, he said.
Rural communities, he said, also suffer from limited insurance carriers and a shortage of doctors and other medical providers, including nurses and physician assistants.
Dawson County is part of the 9th District, represented by Collins, who said the new health care law may have had good intentions, but is based on bad reasoning.
Democratic committee members were invited to attend the field hearing and could have invited a witness, said a committee spokeswoman, but none turned out for the meeting. A small group of activists who support Medicaid expansion also attended, but did not testify.
Witnesses included Jeff Reinhardt, president of The Longstreet Clinic; Michael Boyette, an Ellijay small business owner; Emma Collins, self-employed with a pre-existing condition; and Raymer Sale Jr., president of Gwinnett County-based E2E Benefits Services Inc.
"We're being led to believe polices in effect prior to 2014 are inferior," said Sale, an employee benefits and human resources administration provider. "To whose standards? Most of the policies in effect now were purchased to fit the specific needs of the consumer."
Reinhardt, who is also a practicing physician, said it's not news that health care is in crisis and costs have dramatically risen.
He cited statistics from the World Health Organization saying that U.S. health care costs have gone up from 13.9 percent of the gross domestic product in 1990s to nearly 18 percent this year, with employee health care costs jumping 150 percent.
Access to quality care is limited because of many factors, including high costs, geography, doctor shortages and stagnant Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Longstreet Clinic serves rural and urban hospitals in northeast Georgia.
"In general, the universal access for health care is the emergency room," Reinhardt said. "The nearly 50 million uninsured and non-elderly Americans receive much of their health care in the ER."
Boyette, 28, is married, has one child and another on the way.
The Boyettes have insurance through the state through his wife's job. Under the new law, his family's insurance premium has gone up $190 a month, from $350 to $540.
"We have less coverage than before at a higher out-of-pocket expense," Boyette said. "One company, three choices, that was it. This was not what [President Barack Obama] assured me and many others."
Witnesses recommended to committee members that the government expand community health care centers, offer a la carte insurance options and help doctors develop databases that could measure quality of care.
Gingrey suggested extending group coverage, otherwise known as COBRA.
Reinhardt said payment reform was needed.
Emma Collins, 47, a licensed massage therapist, has an artificial heart valve and was unable to get coverage because of her pre-existing condition. Her husband, also self-employed, and her daughter were covered under a catastrophic plan for $265 a month.
They were notified in October that the company was changing the policy and the price went up to $898 a month, a price she called "outrageous." The deductible for the plan is $12,000 for both family members.
Her family doesn't qualify for subsidies or Medicaid.
"That is not in one way, shape or form, acceptable or affordable," she said.