By Shannon McCaffrey
The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Roy Barnes says the new federal health reform law backed by fellow Democrats could be "financially devastating" for Georgia unless officials in Washington figure out a way to help states cope with a staggering jump in Medicaid costs.
Barnes, the Democrat running to reclaim the governor's mansion, also blasted both political parties and President Barack Obama for failing to win bipartisan support for a law more Americans could get behind.
"I consider it to be the greatest failure, modern failure, of political leadership in my lifetime," Barnes said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
"Everybody recognized 'we've got to do something here,' but there was such partisanship on it."
Barnes blamed Democrats for failing to explain the plan better and Republicans for not delivering reasonable alternatives. But he said ultimately the buck stops with Obama, as it did with him during his one term as governor.
"Listen, I made mistakes. I pushed some things that I should've reached a better consensus on," Barnes said. "He did the same thing. He'll learn."
Republicans have wasted no opportunity to link Barnes to Obama, who has seen his approval ratings sag in recent months. Polls show Obama's popularity in Georgia is well behind the national average. The Republican Governors Association is running a tough new television ad in Georgia suggesting the two men share the same arrogant leadership style.
Barnes' Republican opponent, Nathan Deal, has said he opposes the Obama-backed health law. He delayed his departure from Congress to vote against the bill, stepping down in March immediately after casting a "no" vote on the measure.
At a recent candidate forum sponsored by the state's medical association, Deal assailed the health care law by saying it would place unbearable strains on already cash-strapped states like Georgia.
Barnes said there are some things in the sweeping law he likes, such as prohibiting insurance carriers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical problems as well as allowing parents to keep children on their insurance coverage up to age 26. Barnes also said he would immediately accept money to create an insurance pool for high-risk individuals.
Republican Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has refused to set up a state pool, meaning federal officials will operate one in Georgia.
But Barnes said - like Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue - that he worries the plan's expansion of Medicaid in 2014 to cover more of the state's estimated 1.7 million uninsured will leave Georgia on the hook for "staggering costs."
"I hate to agree with Gov. Perdue, but I agree that this is one place that I think could be very financially devastating to the state until we get this ironed out," Barnes told The AP.
Barnes said current state Medicaid spending of roughly $2 billion could more than double to $5 billion once the federal government reduces matching rates back to more traditional levels.