Supreme Court ruling means more questions for midstate business owners, health care executives

Many midstate business owners and health care executives are relieved the U.S. Supreme Court has made a ruling on the new health care law -- whether they agree with it or not -- so they can now make better decisions about what to do going forward.

Waves in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 193-page ruling Thursday to uphold the Affordable Care Act of 2010 are expected to roll through this fall’s election and for months and years afterward.

Mercer University law professor David Oedel was sitting in the front row when Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. read the court’s opinion in the nation’s capital Thursday morning.

Oedel was one of two men with Macon ties who helped represent Georgia in a challenge to the health care law. Frank Jones, of Macon’s Jones, Cork & Miller law firm, also was part of Georgia’s legal group.

Oedel characterized the court’s ruling as “a mixed bag” from Georgia’s standpoint and said it was “a close case.” He said he’s proud of his work to represent Georgia in the litigation.

“I wish I could have done more,” Oedel said.

Business owners still have questions about what the health care act will mean to their bottom lines and to their employees.

Tom Driver, president of Macon-based Geotechnical and Environmental Consultants Inc., said Thursday he had not really formed an opinion about the health care law because he didn’t know what the impact would be until the Supreme Court made a ruling.

“Now that I know it’s going to be upheld, I can try to figure that out,” Driver said.

Geotechnical has 55 employees, and the company provides health insurance for workers to buy.

“My question is if we provide opportunities for employees to have insurance, and if one of my employees decides not to take it, will we be penalized? I don’t know the answer to that yet.

“Also, what will be the cost to the employee if we decided to not provide insurance and pay the penalty? What will be the cost to the employee (if they have to buy their own insurance)? ... As an employer, I have to figure out which is best for employees and which one is best for us. ... We won’t make any changes or decide anything until 2014. ... I really don’t know what the true impact will be for us or our employees.”

Don Faulk, CEO of The Medical Center of Central Georgia, said he was “mildly surprised about the (individual) mandate” being upheld and that the ruling would have been “scarier” if the act had been totally repealed.

“There have been three arenas for this thing to play out: the legal arena, the political arena and the real practical arena, and obviously I live in the third.

“What we have seen is a major step in the legal arena. It won’t be the last word. I have a feeling there will be other fusses and fights along the way in that legal arena. But what I’m thinking takes place now is in the political arena. And it’s going to take up so much energy as the parties fire back and forth against each other in this election year, that it’s going to sap any logical discussion about the third area, which is the practical ... what’s really going to happen.”

The health care act is mostly about coverage, Faulk said, “whether it’s coverage of the masses or of the individual ... and who has access to coverage.”

Government officials, business owners and other executives from Middle Georgia weighed in Thursday on the Supreme Court ruling. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

Ben Hubbard, City of Macon human resources director:

The roughly 1,000 people employed by the city of Macon should expect no changes to their cost or coverage, Hubbard said.

“The ruling today has no immediate impact on the city,” he said.

Hubbard said his department has worked closely with the city’s insurance administrator to make sure Macon was in compliance with the law as it was written, so the city’s already abiding by all provisions now in effect.

“We did not speculate on what happens had the law been overturned,” he said.

Sam Hart, Bibb County Commission chairman:

Hart said it wasn’t clear what effect the ruling would have on the county government’s health care costs -- but he said the community would benefit.

“I think it’s going to continue to provide widespread benefits to our population. We’re a poor population, and the fact that it’s kept intact is important for us,” he said.

Lori Johnson, associate political science professor and pre-law adviser at Mercer University, Macon:

A lot of people were concerned about the court upholding the law’s individual mandate as a tax, and not as being within the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, Johnson said.

“If they could do this, they could do anything under the commerce clause power, she said. “Here this court is saying, ‘No they can’t. There are limits.’ And what they’re really doing is just increasing the tax if you don’t have insurance. For constitutional law purposes, this draws a line on federal power that wasn’t clear before.”

Charles Briscoe, CEO, Coliseum Health System:

“We will continue to work with patients, payers and the government to ensure a smooth transition as the provisions of the law are enacted. We are pleased that millions of Americans will have coverage for better access to vital medical services, preventive care and acute care.”

Cary Martin, CEO, Houston Healthcare:

“We are pleased a decision has been reached and handed down by the United States Supreme Court. However, because the details are so extensive, we are still trying to determine and digest what it all means -- both to our community and our organization. Until we are able to better understand the ruling and revisions to the law, we -- like everyone else -- will not fully know the impact it will have.”

Shane Gottwals, co-owner of Gottwals Books:

Gottwals’ concern over the ruling isn’t just with the law itself, but what it says about the government’s authority.

Gottwals Books started with a store in Warner Robins and now have locations in Byron, Perry and Macon, with 10 full- and part-time employees. It does not offer health insurance to workers.

“It’s going to damage business growth in general now,” he said. “Just knowing how much more government control has on our lives and how much the federal government gets involved is going to make someone like me more hesitant to expand. Government at any time can make changes and make things more expensive for me.”

Father Allan McDonald, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon:

“The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws of this legislation which is primarily the lack of conscience protections for religious institutions and others who are being mandated to provide preventive services which forces religious and other employers to cover sterilization and contraception, including abortion inducing drugs.”

Bryan Fobbus, human resources director for the city of Warner Robins, said he doesn’t expect the law to impact the city much. He said the city has a good plan that already has many of the provisions that would add cost, such as allowing coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

Ken Carter, personnel director for Houston County:

Carter said the law won’t have an immediate impact on the county but some extra cost could come with provisions to go into effect in 2018.

“In the front end it’s not going to have any impact at all,” he said.

Dr. Chapin Henley, Macon Volunteer Clinic:

“At this point, nobody knows what it means. The folks sitting in the waiting room aren’t going to have any health care coverage tomorrow,” Henley said. “They’re sick today.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223. Staff writers Wayne Crenshaw, Jim Gaines, Rodney Manley, Mike Stucka and Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this story.