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Candidate Profile: Bulloch's Liz Johnson seeks insurance commissioners office
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One fact sets Elizabeth “Liz” Johnson, candidate for Georgia insurance commissioner, apart from all other statewide candidates in this year’s elections. She lives in Bulloch County.

Johnson, 60, has run for several other offices at a county and district level. But more clearly than her past bids for probate judge and court clerk, the office she is now seeking tracks with the 40 years she spent working in insurance.

She is vying with Keith G. Heard, 57, of Athens, for the Democratic nomination in the May 20 primary. Early voting is already underway.

Heard, an insurance agency owner, previously served 20 years in the Georgia House of Representatives until a 2012 primary loss. Either Heard or Johnson will advance to challenge the Republican incumbent, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, in the Nov. 4 general election.

“When we’re in public servant roles such as this, then I think, particularly being an executive branch official of this capacity, that our role is to be of service to Georgians, that we should put Georgians first in all of our decisions, and that’s just not been happening with the incumbent,” Johnson said.

Hudgens famously vowed to be “an obstructionist” toward the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, popularly known as “Obamacare.” In contrast, Johnson would advocate the state’s participation in the ACA program.

“Yes, I would because it is law,” she said. “I would of course monitor from the rate hike perspective, but I would definitely implement the act itself in Georgia.”

The federal law requires Americans, with a few exemptions, to have health insurance, which is being made available from private companies through federal and state exchanges for people who do not already have coverage.

Georgia’s Republican-dominated state government refused to set up a state exchange, and has also rejected an expansion of Medicaid eligibility.

Some legislation introduced in this year’s General Assembly aimed to create more barriers to Georgia’s future cooperation with ACA. One House bill, which among other things would have barred the insurance commissioner from implementing aspects of the program, failed to win support in the Senate, so the insurance commissioner can still play a role, Johnson said.

However, HB 943, which Gov. Nathan Deal did sign into law Tuesday, will prohibit state agencies from using any of their resources to promote voluntary participation in the ACA health insurance expansion.

The University of Georgia, with a federal grant, has employed health navigators trained to help people sign up for coverage. But HB 943 will block state agencies from using future grants to pay navigators. But Johnson would advocate for renewed and expanded use of navigators. They can help people reduce their premiums by finding subsidies they might miss, she said.

She also supports Medicaid expansion, while conceding this is not part of the insurance commissioner’s role.

 “It is outside of the serving capacity of the office, but as an elected executive branch official I would be strongly supportive of it, advocate for it,” Johnson said. “When we look at the numbers, we’re talking about 600,000 Georgians approximately, and maybe even as high as 900,000 Georgians who would have access, like immediate relief as far as having health care coverage.”

Expanding Medicaid could also provide some relief to struggling rural hospitals, she says, and cites a projection that it would create 70,000 jobs in Georgia.

Insurance and safety

Affordable health care is just one of several issues Johnson says make this a critical time for the insurance and fire safety commissioner’s office.

She promises to do what she can to stimulate the economy and lower insurance rates by opening up Georgia’s insurance market for more competition.

“A part of that is apples-to-apples comparisons and having enough competition so that a lot more options are available for the consumer,” she said.

In addition to regulating insurance, the department employs the state’s fire marshals and investigators. While traveling around the state, Johnson said, she has heard “one too many” stories about fire fatalities.

“So I would utilize my skills in that area to see what we can do to improve on Georgia’s fire safety initiatives,” she said.

Born at Miami Beach, Fla., Johnson has been a Bulloch County resident since 1996. Her insurance career, from 1973 until her recent retirement, included twice owning a small independent agency, as well as working for other agencies. She was secretary for Florida’s first specialty insurance agents association. She was licensed, for about 15 years, she said, as an agent in both the property-and-casualty and life-and-health categories.

Johnson has been active with the Bulloch County Democratic Party for 18 years. She has served as 12th Congressional District director for the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women and as district party chairwoman.

In December 2011, Democrats at a state party meeting elected Johnson to represent Georgia on the Democratic National Committee through 2012. This made her a delegate at the convention that nominated President Barack Obama for re-election.

She ran unsuccessfully for Bulloch County Board of Commissioners in 2004, probate judge in 2008, clerk of court in 2012 and District 157 state representative in 2010.

Her husband, Donald Johnson, is a retired law enforcement officer. As a blended family, she said, they have seven children and 13 grandchildren, with twin grandchildren on the way.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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