Visit by HHS Secretary Becerra sheds light on state’s health concerns

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra visited Georgia on Monday amid a battle between state officials and Federal Democrats over the extension of Medicaid.

Becerra was joined by prominent Democratic politicians, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and U.S. Representatives Carolyn Bourdeaux, Lucy McBath and Nikema Williams.

During her trip, Becerra hosted panel discussions with community leaders to hear first-hand the health issues plaguing Georgians. From Atlanta to Norcross, advocates have described racial disparities in medical services, told stories of poor maternal health, and expressed support for the expansion of Medicaid to cover more people.

But the expansion of Medicaid in Georgia is unlikely, as Republican state officials and lawmakers have refused to take the option of expanding coverage for poor adults under the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, Gov. Brian Kemp proposed his own partial expansion plan to the federal government, which is currently under review by the Becerra agency. But the Biden administration has already rejected aspects of the proposal, suggesting the plan will not gain federal approval.

Georgia had the third highest uninsured population before the pandemic. Peach State is one of 12 states that have chosen not to expand the federal health care program.

At a meeting in Atlanta, Becerra said he was open to working with the state on his proposal, but offered no optimism about the outcome.

“We are looking at it, we would like to work with them, we would like to make it work,” he said. “Ultimately, Medicaid is about enabling people to access quality health care at an affordable price. If you want to be exempt from these laws, you have to prove to us that you are going to expand access to more people, with better care, at a better price.

The secretary noted that if a compromise with the state could not be found, Bourdeaux and US Senator Raphael Warnock introduced laws to Congress to create a similar program to circumvent state inaction.

In Norcross, Becerra met with community health officials concerned about racial disparities in services – particularly as COVID-19 devastated communities of color.

Nathaniel Smith, Southern Equity Partnership, said while the conversation focused on inequity in health care, federal leaders must also recognize the structural racism built into the system.

“We have to accept the fact that structural racism is a social determinant,” he said. “And this social determinant affects various communities of color that are sadly in a position to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. “

Becerra, on a mission to promote Biden’s healthcare program, urged the federal agency to take action to close the coverage gap in Georgia.

“We are looking forward to working with the Georgian people,” he said. “Because we know there is a lot of enthusiasm to continue building towards better health care, which is more affordable, for more of your people. “

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