The recently completed legislative session was remarkable for the amount of health care legislation that passed. I have counted over a dozen important health bills that passed, quite amazing compared to last year when almost no health care bills passed. There was a backlog of health care work that got caught up in politics over the last few sessions, and I believe that the change in leadership this year opened the door. With new Senate HHS Chair Dr. Ben Watson working together with Chairman Sharon Cooper in the House in collaboration with Gov. Kemp and Lt Governor Geoff Duncan, progress was made for the health of Georgia.
SB 106, the Patients First Act, creates a path for Georgia to apply for two different types of innovation waivers from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, one relating to Medicaid and the other for private insurance in the individual market. Although it is not yet clear what form the Medicaid waiver will take, the legislation gives an opportunity to improve our current system. The private insurance waiver will likely create a reinsurance program to bring more choices for consumers and lower premium costs.
HB 186 dealt with CON reform and ended up with a compromise that loosened regulatory requirements but did not put our fragile rural hospitals at increased risk. This bill also created an Office of Health Care Strategy and Coordination within the governor’s office to get all Georgia’s health care agencies working together. Similarly, HB 574 created a Mental Health Commission to coordinate the agencies dealing with mental health and substance abuse. Our agencies frequently work in silos and improved communication is the goal of both these programs.
Two bills I sponsored were SB 16, the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Act and SB 18, the Direct Primary Care Act. SB 16 creates an expedited licensure pathway to get qualified doctors coming in from out of state into practice more quickly and also adds a background check provision to protect the public. SB 18 allows direct contracting between doctors and patients outside of insurance, giving another choice to those who can’t afford very expensive individual plans and those who change networks but want to keep their primary care doctor. SB 118 created parameters for licensing telemedicine physicians.
Several medication-related bills passed, including HB 63 dealing with step therapy. This puts some exceptions in place to insurance policies requiring patients to try less expensive drugs prior to the drug the doctor actually ordered. HB 233 and 323 restricted patient steering by Pharmacy Benefit Managers and increased transparency in the pharmacy arena.
Several public health bills passed, including HB 62, Margie’s Law, requiring notification for patients diagnosed with dense breast tissue due to the higher risk of breast cancer. Two bills passed dealing with the HIV crisis (which closely tracks our opioid crisis). HB 217 authorizes the Department of Public Health to develop rules for harm reduction organizations providing syringe services. HB 290 creates a pilot project for preventive treatment for people at high risk of contracting HIV, such as IV drug users, in our most affected counties. An obesity treatment pilot in the State Health Benefit Plan was authorized in HB 187.
This is just a sampling of bills that hopefully will move Georgia out of the basement in almost every measure of health. A few things did not get done, such as a solution to “surprise” billing, out of network bills for emergency medical care. This issue will certainly be back next session.
In our budget, additional residency training slots were funded as well as money to retain doctors in rural areas. There was an emphasis on mental health in the budget in addition to increased funds for maternal mortality work, cancer treatment and trauma centers.
As a physician who has spent a lifetime trying to make a difference in the health of my patients and the citizens of Georgia, I am encouraged by the amount of work that was done on health care this year. I look forward to seeing some concrete results of these efforts and hope the General Assembly will make further progress on improving the health of our state. If you want more information on these bills or other legislation, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 404-656-3932.
Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R- east Cobb, serves as Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and as a member of the Senate Health and Human Services, Insurance and Labor, and Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committees. She has more than 30 years’ experience as an orthopaedic hand surgeon.