Georgia House panel takes up East Cobb cityhood proposal

ATLANTA – Residents of East Cobb were divided at a legislative hearing Wednesday over whether their community should become a city.

A Georgia House subcommittee is considering a bill asking East Cobb voters to decide the cityhood issue in a November referendum.

“Closer to the people is better,” East Cobb resident Scott Hausman told members of the subcommittee, explaining his support for a new city.

“More government means more taxes,” countered resident Scott Killebrew, a cityhood opponent.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican state Reps. Matt Dollar and Sharon Cooper, both of whom represent East Cobb, calls for a city of about 55,000 centered around the Johnson Ferry corridor. It would stretch from the Chattahoochee River on the south to Shallowford Road on the north and from the Fulton County line on the east to Old Canton Road on the west.

A study conducted last year by the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University found the proposed city to be financially feasible.

The city would be governed by a six-member council with three at-large posts and three district seats, all elected citywide. The six would elect a mayor from among themselves.

“We wanted a weaker mayor and a strong city council,” Dollar said.

House Bill 841, which Dollar and Cooper introduced last year, is the second legislative effort at forming a city in East Cobb. A 2019 bill was abandoned due to lack of public support, Dollar said.

“It is a far more well received idea [now],” he said. “People are starting to understand it.”

Democrats captured control of the Cobb County Commission last fall, while East Cobb is heavily Republican.

East Cobb resident and Realtor Pamela Reardon said she doesn’t like the direction the commission is taking on land use and zoning issues.

“They make no bones that their goal is to urbanize our suburbs,” she said. “They want to have high density along Johnson Ferry.”

Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who supports the bill, said East Cobb residents could expect better police protection with a local rather than a countywide police force.

“If you’re a resident of East Cobb, you are paying for police who are not patrolling your community,” he said. “You’re going to get a demonstrably better level of service.”

But opponents questioned the fiscal wisdom of operating a smaller city government in an area now served by Cobb County.

“Incorporating a city is another layer of government,” said Mindy Seger, an organizer of the East Cobb Alliance, a group formed to oppose cityhood.

Setzler said the municipal services the new city would provide would replace county services, not duplicate them.

“It’s not another layer of government,” he said. “It’s just a different layer.”

Seger also criticized the provision in the bill calling for the city council to elect the mayor.

“Citizens should be able to directly participate in the election of this public officer,” she said.

Rep. Victor Anderson, R-Cornelia, the subcommittee’s chairman, said the full House Governmental Affairs Committee could take up the East Cobb cityhood bill as early as Thursday.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Health officials, advocacy groups testify on health care discrepancies

ATLANTA – Georgia House lawmakers heard testimony Monday from state health officials urging more resources for rural and minority communities to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“Nationwide, Black people have died from the coronavirus at a rate 1.4 times the rate of white people,” said Dr. Dominic Mack, a family medicine professor at Morehouse School of Medicine. “In Georgia, just being Black means you have a higher chance of contracting COVID.” 

Dr. Patrice Harris, an immediate past president of the American Medical Association who is based in Atlanta, told the House Health and Human Services Committee the pandemic has impacted communities of color more than others.  

Harris said those communities have been hardest hit because of a lack of communication technologies, such as broadband, as well as funds for mental health services. 

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the committee’s chairman, said House Speaker David Ralston “is committed to get broadband into rural areas, as well as increased mental health services. We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go. 

“One of our biggest problems surrounds our workforce,” Cooper said. “We are at rock bottom when it comes to the number of social workers and psychologists that we need.” 

As of Monday, according to the state Department of Public Health, there have been more than 1.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia since the pandemic began, along with almost 22,000 deaths and more than 79,000 hospitalizations.  

Mack showed maps from the National Center for Primary Care showing high concentrations of COVID-related deaths in minority communities, the same communities that also have high rates of diabetes, hypertension and other chronic health issues. 

Dr. Theresa Jacobs, clinical director of the Georgia Primary Care Association, said her organization represents Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC). In Georgia, there are 34 FQHCs that serve 600,000 residents each year at 229 sites.  

“I get frustrated when I hear there’s a lack of health care in Georgia,” said state Rep. Jodi Lott, R-Evans. “I get frustrated when I hear we don’t provide health care to our poor communities.” 

Lott and her husband own Evans Rehabilitation and Wellness.  

“We devalue our primary care physicians with their reimbursements,” Lott said. “The reimbursement rates for our primary care physicians are pitiful.” 

Marlon Harris, pastor of New Life Church, spoke about the need for public-private partnerships to improve health care in underserved communities. 

“More than 20,000 clients have been served in our community centers,” Harris said. “Many are chronically ill, uninsured and underinsured, at the mercy of state and federal care, mentally ill, suffering from obesity and hypertension, single moms and working dads, and school-age children who only eat what’s offered at their school cafeterias.” 

Harris said more organizations are needed like the Health Education Advocacy Learning (HEAL) Collaborative, which was founded by former state Rep. Howard Mosby of Atlanta. Mosby, who also attended the hearing, founded HEAL as a not-for-profit organization serving minority populations on health care availability and access to treatment options. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

U.S. Senate candidate Gary Black lands endorsements of dozens of legislative Republicans

Gary Black

ATLANTA – Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s U.S. Senate bid is attracting support from a significant number of Republicans in the General Assembly despite former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Herschel Walker.

Black announced Monday the endorsements of 55 GOP legislators, including Georgia House Majority Leader Jon Burns of Newington and the chairmen of the legislature’s two appropriations committees, Rep. Terry England of Auburn and Sen. Blake Tillery of Vidalia.

“I have worked with these leaders on everything from agriculture policy to food safety and petroleum issues, and they know me, my priorities, and my determination,” Black said. “That familiarity makes their support that much more important to me, and I am very grateful for it.”

Black’s list of legislative endorsements announced Monday also included House Majority Whip Matt Hatchett of Dublin, 16 House committee chairs, Senate Majority Caucus Vice Chairman Larry Walker III of Perry, and six Senate committee chairs.

Black landed endorsements earlier from former Gov. Nathan Deal, ex-U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and three Republican members of the state Public Service Commission.

“Gary Black has proven to be one of the hardest working, most straightforward leaders I know,” said Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

“I have seen firsthand how he solves problems, builds relationships, and helps people in every corner in our state. As our next U.S. senator, nobody will be a better advocate for Georgia.”

Black’s support from Georgia elected officials could position him to wage a spirited Republican primary campaign against Walker, the University of Georgia football icon who jumped into the race last month at Trump’s urging. Trump formally endorsed Walker earlier this month.

Walker’s virtually universal name recognition among Georgia voters gives him an advantage over Black and two other Republicans vying for the Senate nomination: Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer; and Kelvin King, a small business owner and Air Force veteran also from Atlanta.

The winner of next May’s GOP Senate primary will take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the general election in November 2022.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia mental health advocates release platform to improve access to care

Georgia Rep. Sharon Cooper

ATLANTA – A coalition of mental health and substance abuse organizations is pushing for Georgia to do something about the state’s dismal status as 51st in the nation in access to mental health care.

The Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership and Substance Use Disorder Community Monday unveiled a “unified vision” for how to improve mental health and substance abuse care.

The coalition is asking Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly to make a series of policy changes taking advantage of $170 million in federal coronavirus relief funding allocated to Georgia since last year.

“The unified vision sets out a transformational roadmap that will significantly improve the lives of Georgians with mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Improving mental health and substance abuse services has been on state elected officials’ radar screens for several years. In 2019, Kemp formed a commission of state lawmakers, health-care professionals, mental-health advocates and criminal-justice officials to address the issue.

This year, the General Assembly unanimously passed legislation aimed at increasing the delivery of care via telemedicine. Among other things, the bill prohibits requiring patients to receive in-person medical consultation before getting telemedicine services and prohibits separate insurance deductibles for telemedicine care.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, who has written two textbooks on psychiatric nursing. Cooper said Monday her late mother and sister have suffered from mental illness.

“I understand what it’s like to be a family member trying to help someone who’s having a problem in this area,” she said.

The coalition’s unified vision makes a series of recommendations, including addressing a severe shortage of mental health care workers and improving access to mental health care by improving broadband service.

“If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19 … that public health emergency has underscored the need for high-speed broadband connectivity, particularly in rural Georgia,” said Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Georgia chapter.

The coalition also is recommending that the state put greater emphasis on early identification of people suffering mental illness or substance abuse issues and require insurance companies to treat patients with mental illness the same as those with a physical illness.

State Rep. Gregg Kennard, D-Lawrenceville, said another step will be finding ways to treat Georgians suffering from mental illness or substance abuse without throwing them in jail.

“The biggest mental health provider in our state is the prison system,” he said. “We need to turn that ship around.”

Jones said the coalition will push for comprehensive legislation addressing its recommendations during this winter’s General Assembly session.

Medicaid extension for new mothers in Georgia gains federal approval

Federal officials have approved Georgia’s plan to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income new mothers in the state, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced Wednesday.

The plan will lengthen the period for income-eligible mothers to receive Medicaid benefits from the current two months up to six months post-partum. Coverage is available for mothers with incomes up to 220% of the federal poverty level.

The extension follows passage last year by the General Assembly for state officials to request a waiver from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which has now granted approval.

Legislation allowing the state’s waiver request came from Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, and passed unanimously last June amid the coronavirus-interrupted legislative session. Kemp then signed the bill.

“We recognize that maternal deaths are a serious public health concern, and the approval of the Georgia Postpartum Extension waiver underscores Georgia’s commitment to continually enhance the level of care for new mothers in the Peach State,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday.

Cooper’s bill also extended Medicaid coverage to lactation specialists for mothers having trouble feeding their babies.

Extending coverage for low-income mothers with newborns stemmed from a House study committee on maternal mortality in 2019 that looked at 101 cases of pregnancy-related deaths in Georgia and found 60% could have been prevented with better health care.

“We view this as a significant steppingstone in helping to ensure that post-partum women throughout Georgia can continue receiving the best care possible,” state Department of Community Health Commissioner Frank Berry said in a statement.

State lawmakers this year also passed separate legislation brought by Cooper to create an easier path for low-income Georgia children to automatically start collecting Medicaid benefits if they are already eligible for food stamps.

Pending approval from the federal government, the automatic enrollment would allow an estimated 60,000 Medicaid-eligible children who receive food stamps to also join the joint state-federal health program, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future.