Legislation to curb the practice of handing patients unexpectedly high medical bills that can add up to thousands of dollars and bankrupt families in Georgia passed out of the General Assembly Wednesday.
The measure, House Bill 888, which the Georgia House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly in March, would require insurers to cover emergency services a patient receives whether or not the provider is a participant in the patient’s insurance coverage network.
That arrangement removes Georgia hospital patients from the billing equation, leaving it to medical providers and insurance companies to settle their differences in a “baseball-style” arbitration process, said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, who sponsored an identical measure in the Senate.
“This will let the health care providers and insurers take the patient out of the middle and take care of them,” said Hufstetler, R-Rome.
The House bill, brought by Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, passed unanimously out of the Senate Wednesday. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.
Dubbed “surprise” or “balance” billing, the extra hospital charges result from specialty procedures like anesthesiology or emergency-room surgery completed by out-of-network specialists. They can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to a patient’s final bill without their knowing in advance.
State lawmakers had tried for the past five years to tamp down surprise billing before Wednesday’s passage. Lawmakers involved in negotiations traced prior hold-ups to disagreements over how insurers and medical specialists should settle out-of-network costs, particularly if disputes arise that need formal arbitration.
Representatives of the Georgia Hospital Association (GHA) and the Medical Association of Georgia (MAG) testified Sunday during a committee hearing in support of the legislation as a good compromise.
Several lawmakers praised the bill Wednesday from the Senate floor, noting its protection provisions were a long time in coming as Georgians continued straining under big surprise hospital charges.
“This is the one piece of the health-care issue that must be dealt with,” said Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth.
Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said she had received surprise bills for medical procedures in the past and was pleased to see the practice get an overhaul.
“No one wants to get a surprise bill,” Butler said. “You want to know what you owe.”
Dave Williams contributed to this story.