NORTH ATLANTA METRO, Ga. — The 2021 outlook for Georgia tells two vastly different stories.

On the economics side, predications have Georgia outpacing the national average for job growth. The Metro Atlanta is expected to do even better than the state average. Wages, home sales, innovation and consumer spending should all see an increase locally in the coming year.

But the current and expected status of healthcare in Georgia is anything but good news.

“Unfortunately, Georgia has a lot of poor healthcare indicators, including obesity and a higher number of people who are uninsured,” said Alexander Hill, a University of Georgia Senior Research Analyst.

The UGA Selig Center for Economic Growth just released its 2021 outlook for Georgia. Despite positive economic signs for the state and metro area, the list of troubling healthcare data and predictions seems endless.

When compared to most other states, Georgians have below-average health, and it’s on the decline. In 2019, the United Healthcare Foundation ranked Georgia 40th among 50 states in citizen health. Among seniors, the state ranked even lower. Georgia sunk to the bottom of the list for childhood immunizations, with 65.6 percent of children receiving vaccinations.

Furthermore, death rates from heart disease, cancer and diabetes in Georgia are above national

averages. UGA experts said these health trends made the average Georgian more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

Going from bad to worse

The coronavirus made a bad situation worse for Georgia.

“An estimated 178,000 Georgians lost their health insurance between February and May 2020,” Hill said. “Georgia is now one of eight states where more than 20 percent of adults are uninsured.”

The overall uninsured rate in Georgia jumped from 19 percent in 2017 to 23-percent in 2020. That number is expected to reach 25 percent in 2021, four years sooner than projected pre-pandemic.

Even for those with insurance, the cost of healthcare can be a punch to the pocketbook. Hill also mentioned the quality of employer-funded medical coverage has diminished over the years.

“The average American will postpone or forego healthcare if it’s too expensive,” Hill said. “And that’s something economists didn’t really understand. Economists thought that the demand for healthcare was relatively inelastic over the decades. But unfortunately, recent years have shown that people only have a finite amount of money.”

The expected cost for medical procedures and prescriptions in 2021 might drive away even more patients. Hill said hospitals actually suffered financial losses this year — having to treat more people in the emergency room rather than performing surgeries. She said hospitals and insurance companies plan on passing the cost of those financial losses down to consumers.

“Those losses that hospitals and other healthcare systems experienced are going to be a shock that will be felt through the end of 2021, maybe even 2022, unfortunately,” Hill said.

Georgians with limited access to medical treatment — living in “healthcare deserts” — took on a greater burden in 2020. Many rural counties have their own clinics run by the government. Hill said those clinics were already strained before COVID-19 exacerbated their problems.

“They weren’t able to get people in as quickly as they should for treatment. They don’t have very many services available,” Hill said. “So, they would have to send people to hospitals that are further away if they have any complex issues.”

Debt will need to be addressed

According to UGA’s report, in 2014, it was estimated that less than 60 percent of the primary healthcare need in Georgia was being met.

Despite the barriers and challenges ahead, Hill said the concerning state of healthcare in Georgia has not been a drain on the economy. Yet.

“Our economy has found a way to push through that,” Hill said. “But there’s only so much medical debt our economy can absorb. So, maybe by 2030, when it starts to become a problem for more than half of the population, I don’t see how we’ll keep saying we’re erasing the debt and you can start over.”

For now, Hill said Georgians can secure themselves financially to avoid taking on too much debt. People in the Peach State already proved that they know how to save money during the pandemic recession.

“When we received the first stimulus check, most people put that into savings. The savings rate increased to 33-percent, which is unheard of,” Hill said. “We usually have a below 10-percent savings rate on average in this country. People saw the uncertainty and they took steps that they needed to take.”

Long term, Hill recommends consumers become better educated to make their professions more recession-proof.

“This recession hit people with low skill jobs the hardest,” Hill said. “If Georgia can increase its average education level to that of the U.S., or exceed it a little bit, I believe that our citizens will be way better off for the next recession.”

Hill also recommends consumers take advantage of valid financial information on the internet to get wise about their money.

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