Governor announces recommendations to help rural hospitals


On Feb. 23, Gov. Nathan Deal released the final report and recommendations from the Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee, which was created last year to identify and provide solutions to address the financial struggles of Georgia's rural hospitals.

The committee's purpose is to review and recommend steps to ensure that all Georgians, no matter where they live, have the ability to receive adequate health care and to strengthen a system that affects not only our citizens' wellbeing but also the condition of our local economies.

The recommendations include the establishment of a four-site pilot program, based upon an integrated "hub and spoke" model, to relieve cost pressures on emergency departments and ensure that the best, most efficient treatment is received by patients. The program aims to increase the utilization of new and existing technology and infrastructure in smaller critical access hospitals, Wi-Fi and telemedicine equipped ambulances, telemedicine equipped school clinics, federally qualified health centers, public health departments and local physicians.

An additional $3 million will be allocated in this year's budget to the State Office of Rural Health within the Georgia Department of Community Health to fund the necessary tools the four hubs need to effectively implement the pilot program. The initiative is not intended to be a temporary fix, but rather a strong starting point toward providing high-quality health care throughout rural Georgia and the beginning of a long-lasting road to recovery for our rural hospitals.

Medical Cannabis: The Georgia House of Representatives voted 158-2 on Feb. 25 to approve the Haleigh's Hope Act, which would authorize the use of medical cannabis to treat certain conditions.
After being amended in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee and on the House floor, HB 1 would provide immunity for the possession of cannabis oil for individuals with certain medical conditions who have obtained cannabis oil legally in another state.

Qualifying conditions under HB 1 include Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Seizure disorders, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, mitochondrial disease, sickle cell disease, and Fibromyalgia. These individuals would only be allowed to possess cannabis oil with a maximum of 5 percent THC and a maximum amount of 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oil.

HB 1 would also require that potential patients register with the Georgia Department of Public Health and be placed on the "Low-THC Oil Patient Registry." These individuals will receive a registration card that exempts them from prosecution in Georgia for possession of medical cannabis oil that has been legally obtained in another state and meets the aforementioned requirements.

The bill also creates the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis which will be charged with making a recommendation for the potential regulatory infrastructure for creation of in-state growth/distribution model of medical cannabis. The commission must make its recommendation to the Governor and General Assembly by December 2015. The members of the commission will include the director of the Governor's Office for Children and Families, the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, the commissioner of agriculture, the Governor's executive counsel, members of the General Assembly, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, and pharmacists.

HB 1 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

FY 2016 Budget: On Feb. 26, House members voted to approve an annual state budget totaling $21.8 billion for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.

The House version of HB 76 includes Gov. Nathan Deal's recommendation of $280 million additional funding to local school systems. House members also voted to continue health insurance coverage for approximately 22,000 part-time school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and their families, with local school systems making the $103 million in payments needed to continue the coverage.

The plan also includes $210 million in bond funding for the Department of Transportation, with approximately half of that amount allocated for bridge repair and replacement and the other half designated for transit projects.

Other appropriations inserted by the House include $7 million in bond funds for the impoundment of reservoirs, $6.5 million in bonds to demolish the old state archives building near the Capitol to make way for a new state judicial building and $3 million for a pilot program to financially assist rural hospitals.

The new budget reflects a 4.5 percent increase over the current year's budget. HB 76 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

Other Legislation: The House voted Feb. 25 to adopt a resolution calling for more academic study of dementia and other health issues related to aging.

Georgia's elderly population is increasing four times faster than the younger population. The number of residents over 60 years old in our state is expected to increase by 65.8 percent between 2010 and 2030. Our healthcare professionals need to be prepared to deal with more and more patients with dementia and other age-related conditions.

HR 304 encourages the expansion of gerontology and dementia education and training at Georgia's technical schools, colleges and universities. Gerontology is the study of the social, psychological, cognitive and biological aspects of aging. The legislation is intended to put Georgia at the forefront of gerontology care.

The resolution is now under consideration in the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Other legislation approved by the House and sent to the Senate this week includes:
• HB 59, which would provide for a waiver of sovereign immunity for declaratory judgment or injunctive relief in state tort claims.
• HB 63, which would provide a tax credit to employers who assist employees with obtaining their GED high school diploma.
• HB 70, which would designate the white-tailed deer as the official state mammal.
• HB 73, which would authorize counties and cities to determine residency requirements by local law for determining eligibility to hold public office.
• HB 85, which would delete certain provisions of state law relating to the possession or sale of alcoholic beverages to patients or inmates of Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.
• HB 121, which would require notices of write-in candidacy filings to include authorization by the candidate if not filed by the candidate.
• HB 177, which would require that school personnel who are required to report child abuse be notified by the child protective agency upon receipt of the report and completion of the investigation.
• HB 199, which would require notice of timber harvesting only in an approved form.
• HB 206, which would provide a uniform rules of the road procedure for passing sanitation vehicles.
• HB 211, which would change certain provisions related to Schedule I, III and IV controlled substances and the definition of "dangerous drugs."
• HB 217, which would authorize public retirement systems to invest in mutual funds, commingled funds, collective investment funds, common trusts and group trusts.
• HB 261, which would provide for the sale of alcoholic beverages during certain times on Sunday in commercial service airports owned or operated by a municipal governing authority.

The House also voted to give final approval to SB 53, which would authorize licensed professional counselors to perform certain actions related to mental health and extend the law's sunset date to June 30, 2018. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

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