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In Southwest Georgia, Insurance Costs Run High

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Brown ultimately bought a $256-a-month Assurant Health plan for her son, sold outside the marketplace, which covers his pediatrician and unlimited office visits. She and her husband have decided to forgo coverage for themselves, even though they may face a tax penalty of $700.

"I can’t afford the affordable health care," she said. "I don't know anyone in this area who can afford it, and I do pretty well in life."

Others, such as Mullins, last year renewed their expiring plans for one final year. At $2,150 a month, Mullins’ old plan is no bargain. "We've never had cheap rates down here," said Hardin, his broker. "A lot of people just choose to go without coverage. They just present themselves to the emergency room."

An Unhealthy Population

With prices double those in Atlanta, health insurance is pretty much the only thing that is abnormally expensive in Southwest Georgia. The average household income in the Albany metro area is $46,000, and half of the houses sell for less than $105,000. A dozen oysters at one of the fancier restaurants costs $9.

But all the ingredients for heavy health care needs—both medical and socioeconomic—are common in the 12 counties of Southwest Georgia, which are being treated as a distinct region in the insurance market. One in four children live in poverty and one out of every three people here are obese. Babies are more likely than those in most parts of the country to have low birth weights, according to data compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

"If you look at the Georgia health indices for cancer, obesity, diabetes or pre-metabolic diseases, asthma, stroke,  or heart disease, there are many counties that are worse than some Third World countries," said David Hefner, CEO of Georgia Regents Medical Center.

The lowest premiums in the country are around Minneapolis, known for its healthy population. Yet other parts of the country face the same kinds of health challenges as southern Georgia and have significantly lower insurance premiums. In a cluster of five South Carolina counties that the University of Wisconsin data show have demographics similar to Southwest Georgia, the lowest price silver plan is 39 percent less expensive.

Many insurance brokers and residents place the blame for high premiums on the expanding Phoebe Putney Health System, the nonprofit that runs six hospitals in Southwest Georgia.  The Federal Trade Commission and Georgia's attorney general unsuccessfully tried to reverse Phoebe's 2012 acquisition of Palmyra Park Hospital in Albany because it made the system so dominant that they said Phoebe could essentially dictate prices. In a settlement, Phoebe was allowed to hold on to Palmyra, giving it 86 percent of the regional health care market.

Fri, Jan 31 2014

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