As session ends, Governor leads effort to help rural hospitals


The 2014 legislative session reached final adjournment in the late hours of Thursday, March 20. The previous day, members of the Georgia Legislative Rural Caucus, which I chair, and officials with the state Department of Community Health joined Gov. Nathan Deal as he announced a plan to improve access to healthcare in rural Georgia.

The governor’s plan includes three new proposals to increase communication between stakeholders and ensure that every Georgian is reasonably close to a healthcare provider should a need or emergency arise.

The first part of the plan involves changing the rules and regulations affecting licensure for hospitals, allowing rural hospitals to offer fewer services if they are in danger of closing or have closed within the past year due to financial distress. Rural, free-standing emergency departments will provide emergency services to stabilize and transfer patients to existing full service hospitals located no more than 35 miles away. If they choose to do so, these facilities can offer additional services, such as elective outpatient surgery, basic OB/GYN services, including normal baby deliveries and certain procedures that do not require an operating room, such as an endoscopy.

Secondly, the Department of Community Health will designate one employee to serve as a point person for rural hospitals. This individual will assist the department and the state in getting real-time information and advance notice of hospital facing significant financial difficulty or closure.

The third component of the plan is the creation of a Rural Hospitals Stabilization Committee to identify the needs of the rural hospital community and provide potential solutions, such as addressing cash flow issues or encouraging hospitals to modify their business plans to meet the needs of their community while maintaining financial stability.

Assisting these hospitals is a top priority of the Rural Caucus, not only to ensure access to quality healthcare in rural Georgia, but also to protect the jobs of hospital employees, the security of bonds backed by local governments and taxpayers and the overall economies of the affected communities.

I am pleased to report that legislation I introduced to provide Class E and Class F drivers’ licenses free of charge to qualified volunteer firefighters (HB 88) received final approval by the House of Representatives and the Senate on the final day of the session as an amendment to SB 298, which now goes to Gov. Deal for his signature.

Other major legislation achieving final passage last week included:
• HB 744, the $20.8 billion state budget for fiscal year 2015. The plan represents a 5 percent total increase over the current year’s budget and includes $314 million in additional Quality Basic Education formula funds for public schools. School system equalization grants received a $5 million increase, and an additional $414,585 went to school nurse funding. On the local level, the budget’s bond package includes $1.9 million in pre-design funds for Lanier Hall, an Allied Health building on the Valdosta campus of Wiregrass Technical College; $1.9 million for the University Center renovation project at Valdosta State University; and $280,000 in state funds for improvements at South Georgia Regional Library.
• HB 60, which allows licensed, law-abiding citizens ages 21 and older to carry weapons in more public areas than presently authorized. The Safe Carry Protection Act continues to respect the rights of private property owners and gives congregations the option of deciding whether to allow weapons to be carried in their places of worship.
• HB 697, which creates the Zell Miller HOPE Grant program to cover full tuition costs for HOPE-eligible technical college students who maintain at least a 3.5 grade point average. This legislation is intended to attract top students back to Georgia’s technical college after a reduction in tuition assistance had caused a nearly 20 percent drop-off in enrollment.
• HB 772, which requires drug testing for food stamp applicants based on reasonable suspicion – including demeanor, missed appointments, arrests, employment issues, etc. Under the legislation, any person who fails a drug test will be ineligible to receive food stamps, but the bill provides for reapplication as well as children’s food stamps.
• HB 943, which requires health benefit plans to provide equal coverage of chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients, regardless of whether the drugs are administered orally or intravenously. The bill also prohibits state employees or agencies from using state resources to support the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and prohibits state employees from voicing their support for the federal health care law during working hours or through the use of government-funded resources.
• HB 990, which prohibits any department, board or representative of the state from expanding the eligibility requirements for Medicaid without approval of the General Assembly. This prohibition does not include increases as a result of cost-of-living increases in the federal poverty level.

Before the session ended, however, the House and Senate were unable to agree on the final language of HB 885, which would have allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis oil, a derivative of marijuana, for the treatment of seizure disorders in children. Legislation to guarantee insurance coverage for the treatment of autism in patients 6 years of age and under (SB 397) met a similar fate.

Please let me know your views on the issues facing our state, or whenever I can be of service.

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