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State health care agenda
Will longtime disputes be resolved?
Seal of Georgia

Despite a new lineup of legislators — as well as a new governor and lieutenant governor — many health care issues in the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly will have a familiar look. They are largely the same ones that have percolated under the Gold Dome in past years.

Health care regulations. Surprise medical billing. Rural health care. Medical marijuana.

Yet something new just got created that may serve as a vehicle for legislation to shake up Georgia health care.

House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has named a special committee on Access to Quality Health Care. While it will focus on regulations under the controversial certificate-of-need (CON) laws, the panel also may look at state proposals to shore up or expand health insurance.

Ralston said Thursday that he hopes the committee “will make a lot of progress this session,” which convenes next week. He also spoke to reporters about several other health care-related issues during a media briefing at the state Capitol.

The special committee will be chaired by two people very familiar with health care. State Rep. Richard Smith (R-Columbus), chairman of the House Insurance Committee, will chair the special panel, while Rep. Sharon Cooper, head of the House Health and Human Services Committee, will serve as vice chair.

It’s a two-year gig for the committee members, whose numbers include some Democrats.

Certificate of need, in particular, appears to be in legislators’ crosshairs, after years of wrangling over even the slightest changes to these state regulations.

That committee’s work won’t be the only thing for the health care industry to watch. Hundreds of bills every year touch on health care, and there are always some wild cards that turn up.

Here are some topics seen as likely to surface during the session:

 

Surprise billing

This thorny issue continues to elude compromise.

Surprise billing occurs when consumers have procedures or visit ERs at hospitals in their insurance network, then get separate bills for hundreds or even thousands of dollars from non-network doctors who were involved in their care.

Such bills from ER doctors, anesthesiologists and radiologists, among others, often baffle and anger consumers.

The most recent legislative attempt to fix the problem was last year, but it stalled like those in previous years, because lawmakers could not reach a compromise between differing proposals.

One proposal, backed by health insurers, focused on giving consumers more information on non-network providers and costs. The other, supported by physician groups, would have set a formula for insurer reimbursements to doctors for out-of-network care.

The issue still resonates at the Gold Dome. State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican who backed legislation earlier this year, told GHN this week, “We will try again to find common ground between the House and Senate as well as insurance companies and [medical] providers.”

 

Tobacco tax

Hufstetler also told the Rome News-Tribune that he supports legislation similar to a bill introduced by Republican Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah, near the end of last year’s session. It would have raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 37 cents to $1.87.

Tobacco use —— the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the U.S. —— causes more than 11,000 deaths in the state annually, and its direct health care costs amount to more than $3 billion a year.

Georgia has the third-lowest state cigarette tax rate out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But many libertarians and conservatives oppose any tax increases.

Speaker Ralston, when asked about a possible tax hike, noted that adult smoking rates have declined in the U.S. “I’m always hesitant to suggest raising taxes in any event,” including for tobacco use, he added.

 

Medical cannabis

Georgia allows people with medical conditions to possess medical marijuana. But it’s illegal to bring it into the state.

A legislative commission has recommended allowing medical marijuana to be grown in Georgia and sold to patients. The proposal would license marijuana growers, manufacturers and dispensaries.

Georgia is one of the few states where medical marijuana is legal but cultivation and distribution are not, the Macon Telegraph reported. That means the 6,421 Georgia residents with medical cards have virtually no legal way to get the medication they need.

“We really have set up a law that is potentially forcing Georgia citizens to break federal law in order to obtain the product,” state Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican who spearheaded the 2015 medical marijuana legislation, told the Telegraph.

State Sen. Matt Brass, a co-chairman of the commission, said he wants to help patients who can benefit from medical marijuana without moving the state closer to legalization of marijuana for recreational use, the AJC reported recently.

“I know this bill will not make everyone happy,” said Brass, a Republican from Newnan. “We’re simply doing this to get access for our patients.”

 

Rural health care

In recent years, Georgia lawmakers have tried to address the financial struggles that many rural hospitals face. Legislation to help these facilities included raising the rural tax credit for donors to rural hospitals from 90 percent to 100 percent.

The Rural Development Council has recommended raising the tax credit ceiling for rural hospital donations from the current $60 million to $100 million. The program has been “incredibly successful,” says state Rep. Terry England, co-chairman of the council.

But England has said the council also wants to clarify rules involving donation processes and what hospital expenditures are allowed with those funds.

Ralston also said Thursday that expanding rural broadband will help health care in rural areas, as well as business and education. “I think broadband is foundational” to revitalize rural Georgia, he said.