Senate race in Georgia gaining steam past the 100-day point

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

Battle lines are being drawn in the race to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s Senate term with less than 100 days left until Election Day in November.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who was appointed to hold the seat in December, has squared off with Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., over criminal justice issues and their personal backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock has homed in on health care and voting rights issues, both figuring as major policy areas for Democrats across the country.

Above all looms the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted tough debate on how to keep Georgians safe without wrecking the economy.

Nearly two dozen candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for the Senate special election on Nov. 3, a free-for-all contest in which candidates from all parties will be on the same ballot.

On the Republican side, candidates Loeffler and Collins are hustling to scoop up marquee endorsements from conservative groups and political leaders as they jab each other with campaign attacks.

Each has drawn support from local law enforcement officials, conservative groups and prominent state and national Republican leaders following Loeffler’s appointment by Gov. Brian Kemp in December to hold the Senate seat and Collins’ decision to jump into the race in January.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman running her first political campaign, has cast herself as an outsider candidate compared to the four-term Congressman Collins – though both have grounded their campaigns in supporting gun ownership, opposing abortion and backing President Donald Trump.

“With significant advantages in resources, infrastructure and grassroots support, our campaign is continuing to build momentum toward a big win,” said Loeffler’s communications director, Stephen Lawson.

Collins, a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain who served in the Georgia House before joining Congress, has embraced his legislative experience while lobbing criticism at Loeffler’s use of her wealth in the campaign and fending off attacks on his record as a former criminal defense attorney.

“I’ve stood for the Constitution as a military officer,” Collins said Thursday. “I’ve stood for the Constitution as an attorney representing the values of this community and representing the values of this state.”

Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, quickly drew endorsements from a slate of top Democratic state and national lawmakers and party favorites like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

He has sought to emphasize popular Democratic stances on expanding health-care coverage and voting-rights protections in recent weeks as COVID-19 continues battering Georgia and months of protests over police brutality and racial injustice carry on.

“It’s not about the personalities who are running,” Warnock said recently. “We’re seeing a moment unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime that whoever you decide to vote for can literally decide who lives and who dies.”

As the race steams ahead, differences have emerged between the candidates on how to best tackle the health and economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the most pressing issues amid the pandemic is what to do about the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit millions of out-of-work Americans have received since March, which is set to expire this weekend.

Loeffler and Collins have echoed congressional Republican leaders who oppose keeping the $600 benefit as is, arguing many businesses have struggled to bring employees back to work amid unemployment benefits that may be higher than their regular paychecks.

And both candidates have said they would prioritize sending more federal aid to schools, hospitals and businesses struggling to rebound and purchase protective equipment.

But while Loeffler has not said whether she would support a reduced weekly benefit, Collins has been unequivocal.

“If the unemployment insurance is something that is still there, make it as small as possible and make it end as quickly as possible,” Collins said at a recent campaign stop.

For her part, Loeffler has said she wants to weigh proposals on benefit amounts before taking a position and emphasized the need to bolster state unemployment trust funds.

“That’s the first thing, how do we help states make sure that they can meet the need at that level,” Loeffler said on Monday. “And then I think we’d have to look at what that additional federal level of funding would be needed.”

Warnock has urged extending the $600 benefit going forward and called for helping prop up unemployed workers via expanded health-care coverage, particularly for Medicaid in Georgia.

He has also tied the issue to bids by Republican lawmakers to trim federal spending and shrink taxes, framing those moves as “an effort to renegotiate the social contract to starve the government to death” that he argues has hamstrung the long-term pandemic response.

“This idea that you wouldn’t have resources, a social safety network, to respond in a crisis like this is the logical outcome of that kind of move,” Warnock said recently. “And so I will absolutely stand up as United States senator and argue that working people, middle-class people, deserve their fair shake.”

The race looks to intensify in the coming weeks as the candidates begin pouring campaign funds into television ads and social-media spots.

Loeffler will have the largest bank by far to pay for ads and other marketing, having already loaned her campaign $15 million from her own personal money. Warnock raised around $4.4 million through June, while Collins reeled in roughly $3.8 million.

In mid-July, Loeffler unloaded a campaign ad criticizing Collins’ stint as a defense attorney in Gainesville, noting his firm took on several clients facing gang, drug trafficking and assault charges.

Collins dismissed the ad, stressing his firm was appointed by the courts to defend the indigent clients shown in the ad.

A week later, Collins released his own ad highlighting controversial stock transactions Loeffler made following a closed-door briefing on the coronavirus in January.

Loeffler has said those trades were done by a third-party advisor without her input and noted the U.S. Justice Department did not produce evidence of insider trading before closing an investigation into her transactions.

And Warnock, who has held off so far on in-person campaigning due to the virus, has leaned on social media to air his views on voting rights and health care.

In recent videos, Warnock has pressed both Loeffler and Collins to state their positions on restoring certain election oversight rules to the Voting Rights Act taken away by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 ruling, and on proposals to repeal a key coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act.

The weeks ahead may also settle whether any of the 17 other candidates in the race drop out to help boost chances for Loeffler, Collins or Warnock to nab more than 50% of votes in the Nov. 3 election.

Among prominent Democratic candidates still in the race are Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and state senator from Augusta, and Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. senator and 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman turned heads by polling higher than Warnock by 5 percentage points in a poll released Wednesday by Monmouth University.

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in November, a runoff will be held in January between the top two vote-getters.

Coronavirus pandemic wearing down Georgia hospitals’ bottom lines

ATLANTA – A new wave of coronavirus patients that began showing up at Georgia hospitals in early July has prompted shortages of staffing and bed space and strained supplies of sanitation items like disinfectant wipes.

But that’s only the most obvious manifestation of what the COVID-19 pandemic is doing to hospitals large and small across the Peach State.

Less obvious but equally if not more daunting is the long-term consequences on hospitals’ finances.

“In one word, it’s devastating,” said Ethan James, executive vice president for external affairs for the Georgia Hospital Association. “It’s scalable for the big hospitals that may have had a good amount of reserves before this started. … Smaller hospitals are going through their reserves quicker.”

The effect of the pandemic is having the most serious impact on rural hospitals.

In the most severe example, the Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert recently announced plans to close its doors this fall. It will become the eighth rural hospital in Georgia to close in the last decade, although some have reopened with fewer services.

“There are probably a dozen [more] that are having a difficult time,” said Monty Veazey, president and CEO of the Tifton-based Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals. “They spent down their reserves. They don’t have a bottom line.”

As the number of hospital closures since 2010 indicates, financial struggles among rural hospitals pre-date COVID-19. Historically, they have been plagued by a shortage of paying patients.

“Their patient mix is high indigent, high Medicaid, high uninsured and underinsured,” Veazey said. “They’re living off cash flow and trying to make a weekly payroll.”

Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health Care, which represents rural hospitals in Georgia, said his organization was called upon to help six cash-strapped hospitals make payroll back in February and early March, just before the coronavirus outbreak gained a grip on the state.

“When the pandemic hit, they quit doing elective surgery,” Lewis said. “The financial impact was immediate and awful.”

Hospitals’ financial straits eased somewhat when Gov. Brian Kemp partially reopened Georgia’s economy in late April. They resumed revenue-generating elective surgery and, at about the same time, a pipeline of federal assistance opened up when money from a coronavirus relief package Congress had passed in March began to flow.

“All of a sudden, the hospitals had cash,” Lewis said.

With the congressional relief measures helping to relieve hospitals’ financial concerns for the time being, the most serious problem has become coming to grips with the surge of COVID-19 patients streaming into hospitals since the pandemic took a turn for the worse in early July.

The increased demand is affecting large urban hospitals as well as their rural counterparts. Atlanta-based Emory University Hospital has seen more COVID-19 patients treated in intensive care in recent weeks than during the pandemic’s earlier peak in April, said Jonathan Lewin, president and CEO of Emory Healthcare.

“If this continues for a few months, it’s going to be concerning,” he said. “There are a lot of hospitals that are going to be in very, very financially challenged times.”

In some parts of the state, hospitals are short on bed space. Hospitals serving the regions surrounding Athens and Tifton have run out of beds dedicated to intensive care, forcing those hospitals to move beds normally dedicated to other patients into ICU units or transfer them to other facilities.

Lewis said the surge of COVID-19 patients also has made staffing a huge problem for the rural hospitals.

“We don’t have enough staff to handle all that’s coming,” he said.

While the federal money has been helpful, it’s not a long-term fix. For one thing, there’s no guarantee more will be forthcoming, with Republicans and Democrats in Congress far apart on a new relief package.

“It’s been a Band-Aid. That’s all,” Veazey said. “It’s propped up some [hospitals] a little while longer. It’s not going to be a solution.”

Veazey said a more reliable solution would be expanding Georgia’s Medicaid program. To date, 38 states have expanded Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act then-President Barack Obama pushed through a Democratic Congress a decade ago.

“We would need a Medicaid expansion to survive,” Veazey said. “[But] I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Kemp and Republican leaders in the General Assembly have resisted expanding Medicaid based on the Obamacare model. Instead, the legislature has authorized the governor to seek a federal waiver to expand Medicaid through a more conservative approach than the Affordable Care Act offers.

The Georgia Hospital Association is doing its part to try to reduce the demand for hospital beds with a Mask Up campaign, encouraging Georgians to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently.

“We continue to ask people to do the right thing and act responsibly,” James said.

Lewis said unless something happens to ease the pressure on rural hospitals, they could start running out of money this fall. If that happens, they will be forced to look to the federal government for a bailout, he said.

“[Now,] we’re short of people,” he said. “We’re going to be short of cash. It’s an incredible mess.”

New Ossoff ad attacks Trump’s handling of coronavirus

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff has cut a new TV ad that – without naming names – slams President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Recorded at Ossoff’s home, where he is self-quarantining after his wife, Dr. Alisha Kramer, tested positive for COVID-19, he praises her work on the front lines of the pandemic as an ob-gyn at Emory University.

“Too many Americans are still getting sick,” a tieless Ossoff declares in the ad. “We need to listen to medical experts, coordinate the national testing strategy and stop politicizing masks. … Nurses and doctors like Alisha, they’re doing their job. It’s way past time politicians did theirs.”

Ossoff, who has tested negative for COVID-19, remains at home with his wife, who has been steadily improving.

The investigative journalist from Atlanta won the June Democratic primary to challenge incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in November.

Perdue, who is seeking a second six-year term, ran unopposed for the Republican nomination.

Both sides have been waging an intense campaign on the airwaves, including TV ads funded by their campaigns as well as ads financed by the political parties and outside groups.

Ossoff has been playing up Perdue’s close ties to Trump, including an ad entitled “Echo” alternating sound bites from Perdue identical almost word for word to sound bites from Trump.

An ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee links Ossoff to Hollywood “liberals,” and suggests he is exaggerating his resume.

Georgia World Congress Center to reopen for COVID-19 patients

Coronavirus (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

ATLANTA – The Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta will reopen to receive coronavirus patients on Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

The facility, which has a capacity of 120 beds, will house 60 beds initially and increase based on need.

“These additional hospital beds will provide relief to surrounding health-care facilities while providing top notch care for patients,” Kemp said in a prepared statement. “My administration is laser-focused on expanding hospital surge capacity while working to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia.”

This will mark the second time the convention center has been tapped to help with an overflow of coronavirus patients. A 200-bed alternative care facility there was activated back in April as COVID-19 cases soared and state officials rushed to boost emergency bed capacity.

Its operations were paused in late May as the governor moved to relax business restrictions and jump-start the state’s flagging economy.

But COVID-19 cases have been rising again since the beginning of July. As of Thursday afternoon, 18,303 Georgians suffering from coronavirus were hospitalized, including 3,354 patients in intensive care.

The number of confirmed cases in Georgia had risen to 182,286. The virus had killed 3,671 Georgians.

Grady Memorial Hospital will serve as the lead hospital for clinical oversight for the 120-bed facility at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The facility also will have the staffing and equipment necessary to treat a higher level of need in patients than the previous configuration during May and June, enabling hospitals to focus their staff and resources on the most critical patients in their own facilities.

SEC accuses former Georgia Regent Dean Alford of defrauding investors

Dean Alford

ATLANTA – The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a former member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents Thursday with defrauding at least 100 investors in a now-bankrupt energy development company.

Dean Alford, who also served in the General Assembly, fraudulently raised at least $23 million on behalf of Allied Energy Services LLC from 2017 to 2019, according to the SEC’s complaint. The investors, primarily Indian-American professionals, were guaranteed high annual rates of return.

The alleged scheme collapsed last year when Alford failed to make promised interest payments to several investors and then failed to repay the investors’ principal.

Alford resigned from the Board of Regents last October. About two weeks later, 39 investors filed a civil suit accusing him of running a $6 million Ponzi scheme.

“As alleged in our complaint, Alford was a prominent member of the community who misled retail investors for personal gain,” Justin Jeffries, associate regional director for the SEC’s Atlanta Regional Office, said Thursday. “Investors should be wary whenever they are promised guaranteed, lucrative investment opportunities.”

According to the complaint, Alford presented Allied as a successful business when in fact it was struggling. He  claimed investors’ funds would finance energy projects while using most of the money to make interest payments to earlier investors and for personal expenses, including a multimillion-dollar home.

Without admitting or denying the allegations, Alford consented to entry of a judgment finding that he violated the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws. He also agreed that the amount of civil penalties will be set by the court at a later date.