WellStar, Augusta University unveil planned partnership

WellStar Kennestone Hospital

ATLANTA – Marietta-based WellStar Health System and Augusta University Health System (AUHS) have signed a letter of intent to form a partnership, the two systems announced Tuesday.

The proposed partnership, subject to a final agreement and regulatory approval, would let WellStar create a broader affiliation with Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia (MCG) as AUHS joins the WellStar system.

“By bringing Augusta University Health System together with WellStar Health System and leveraging our respective strengths, we would improve the health of the community, address social determinants of health and expand access to quality care for all Georgians,” said Candice Saunders, WellStar’s president and CEO.

The two systems have been working toward a partnership since 2019.

“AUHS, Augusta University and the WellStar Health System have a shared mission to solve Georgia’s health-care challenges,” said Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia. “By joining forces and working together, we can leverage WellStar’s clinical platform and leading-edge systems to support patients while providing more opportunities for students to learn, train and care for residents in local communities across Georgia.”

If approved, the partnership would focus on expanding digital health offerings to create more convenient access to care and provide more individualized care regardless of location. It also is aimed at growing Georgia’s pipeline of physicians and other health-care providers as well as developing new treatments.

While there are aspects of the proposed partnership yet to be determined, it likely would result in significant investments to improve existing health-care facilities and expand access to care across the state, including a new hospital and medical office buildings in Columbia County.

“Providing health care has never been as dynamic and complex as it is today,” said Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University. “This partnership … would enable us to extend our mission of improving health through excellence in patient care, education and research for the benefit of Georgians.”

A new teaching campus at WellStar Kennestone Hospital could also be established under the proposed partnership. As a result, MCG, which already has the ninth-largest freshman medical school class in the nation, would grow to become one of the largest public medical schools in the country.

Tuesday’s announcement came less than two months after WellStar’s Atlanta Medical Center closed its doors, dealing a huge blow to patient care in Georgia’s capital city. The state responded by sending $130 million in federal pandemic funds to Grady Memorial Hospital to help offset the impact of the closure.

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

General Assembly to renew debate over mining near Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp

ATLANTA – A South Georgia lawmaker is preparing another effort to stop an Alabama-based company from mining titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp.

State Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, plans to introduce legislation early in this winter’s General Assembly session banning surface mining along Trail Ridge in Charlton County, where Twin Pines Minerals is seeking permits to mine titanium oxide near the edge of the largest black water swamp in North America.

“It’s a very special place,” Taylor said last week. “It’s ecologically important to the region, the state, and the country. If there’s a miscalculation, you can’t correct it.”

Taylor introduced a bill to stop mining near the Okefenokee during this year’s legislative session. But when the bill died in the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee, the project’s opponents settled for passing a non-binding resolution recognizing the importance of the swamp and encouraging efforts to promote it as a tourist destination.

House lawmakers approved the resolution in early April at a time the question of whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) held jurisdiction over permits for the proposed mine was up in the air.

“They were batting it back and forth,” Taylor said. “We didn’t feel like it was a good time to move it forward until we knew who had authority over it.”

Since then, the EPD has resumed its review of Twin Pines’ plan. The Army Corps stepped aside last summer in an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed by Twin Pines.

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney and a leader of a successful effort during the 1990s to stop DuPont Chemical from strip mining near the Okefenokee, welcomed the renewal of Taylor’s bid to block the Twin Pines project.

“With leading scientific experts from [the University of Georgia] saying that mining on Trail Ridge will lower the swamp’s water level and drop salt into the swamp, with devastating consequences, there’s simply no justification for allowing any mining there,” Marks said.  “That’s why legislation … is so desperately needed.”

The Biden administration also weighed in on the project recently. After visiting the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in September, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp urging the state not to approve the proposed mine.

Twin Pines officials argue the mine does not threaten the swamp, noting the proposed site for the project is about three miles from the southeast corner of the Okefenokee at its closest point. The company also is pledging to restore the land to its original contours and native vegetation after mining activity is completed.

EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips wrote in an email the agency will conduct a public comment period on the project – likely to run for 60 days – beginning at a date yet to be determined. Additionally, EPD is accepting comments at [email protected], which will be considered during the permitting process.

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

Georgia Rep. Sam Watson resigns to seek vacant state Senate seat

Sam Watson

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate seat vacated this week by Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, already is drawing attention.

State Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, has resigned his House seat to run for the opening in Southwest Georgia’s 11th Senate District.

Gov. Brian Kemp has scheduled special elections Jan. 31 to fill both seats.

Watson was elected in 2012 to represent House District 172, which at the time included portions of Colquitt, Tift, and Thomas counties.

A farmer by trade, Watson has been active on agricultural issues in the General Assembly. He served on the House Agriculture Committee as well as the Appropriations, Natural Resources & Environment, and Ways and Means committees.

Watson was reelected to a newly redistricted House District 172 seat in November, running unopposed. The district now no longer includes Tift County but instead takes in a portion of Cook County.

Burke resigned the Senate seat this week to take a job as chief medical officer of the Georgia Department of Community Health.

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

How Georgia’s new Medicaid work requirement program will work 

ATLANTA – After years of legal wrangling, the countdown to the July 1, 2023, launch date of Georgia’s Medicaid work requirements program is underway. 

The new plan – officially called Pathways to Coverage – will require enrollees to complete 80 hours of work, education, job training, or community service per month to get Medicaid health insurance. Many will also have to pay a monthly premium.  

Once the program begins, Georgia will be the sole state with work requirements for Medicaid. Adults between ages 18 and 64 who earn less than 100% of the federal poverty level – and who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid – are the targeted group. For 2022, the federal poverty level was $13,590 for a single person and $27,750 for a family of four. 

Though exact numbers are difficult to calculate, it’s expected that the Pathways program will provide insurance to only a small percentage of the 1.3 million Georgians without health insurance.  

State officials estimate around 345,000 Georgians would be eligible for the new program. Back in 2020, they said they expected only about 64,000 people to actually enroll in the program.

Now that the program is becoming a reality, the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH), the state Medicaid agency, has requested funds to cover up to 100,000 people in the upcoming budget, said spokesman David Graves. That’s 29% of those who will be eligible.

“Georgia leadership has put in place barriers that they know, that they have calculated, will prevent … people from enrolling,” said Leonardo Cuello, research professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, about the discrepancy between the number of eligible people and the number expected to enroll.  

Critics of Pathways contend the program will cover far fewer Georgians and cost more than a full expansion of Medicaid, as 39 states have done.  

Leah Chan, senior health analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Atlanta, said the new program will cost around $2,420 per enrollee while it would cost only $496 per enrollee if the state fully expanded Medicaid.  

“New financial incentives under the American Rescue Plan sweeten the deal [for full Medicaid expansion] and more than offset the state cost of expansion for at least the first two years,” Chan said.  

Enrollees in Georgia Pathways will need to certify their employment each month. Those who earn more than 50% of the federal poverty level will also be required to pay a monthly premium ranging from $7 to $11, with an additional surcharge for people who use tobacco products.  

The program will provide a two-month grace period for people who do not pay their premiums. But after three months of non-payment, they will lose the insurance. They can be reinstated if they make at least one monthly payment within 90 days.  

The state plans to use the existing benefits portal, Georgia Gateway, for program applicants to manage their work-requirement reporting, said Graves, the DCH spokesperson. He said Georgians can expect to learn more about the details of the program over the coming months.  

Critics say the machinery necessary to track enrollee work records and payments will dramatically increase bureaucratic burdens both for Medicaid recipients and the state.

“When you think about working families in Georgia, they are busy with their jobs, getting kids to school and the doctor, paying the stack of bills that come in every month, and the last thing they need is additional red tape … every month just to keep their health insurance from getting terminated,” Cuello said.

Cuello said the state will have to develop “expensive administrative processes” to ensure compliance with the work requirements. The [congressional Government Accountability Office] and states have estimated costs ranging from $70 million to $270 million a year to implement and run this type of program, he said. 

DCH has not yet decided whether it will need to hire additional staff to help run the program, Graves said. 

The Pathways program allows some exceptions to the work-requirement rules. Enrollees will be allowed 120 hours of “non-compliance,” that is of not meeting the work requirements, in every 12-month period. 

But routine child care is not on the list of exceptions. Other states that previously attempted work requirements ensured that caring for young children was a valid reason for not meeting the requirements and would not result in losing insurance.   

“A stay-at-home parent taking care of two young kids in a family that lives at half of the poverty level … can’t afford child care, and they can’t just leave two young kids at home alone,” Cuello said. “Georgia’s plan makes no exceptions for these parents, and they will be denied health insurance.”  

The plan has federal approval to operate until Sept. 30, 2025.

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

Georgia bases land priority projects in national defense bill

The new Columbia-class submarines are likely to be stationed at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden signed the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act Friday, legislation that approves fiscal 2023 funding requests for Georgia military bases from St. Marys to Marietta.

The annual defense bill represents a 10% increase over what the Pentagon received during the last federal fiscal year and 5% more than the Biden administration sought from Congress.

While many items on Georgia’s military wish list moved through the authorization process smoothly, the state’s congressional delegation had to mount a lobbying campaign to save the Combat Readiness Training Center in Savannah, an Air National Guard facility for military pilots the administration was threatening to close. It received full funding for the coming year.

“I strongly opposed the Biden administration’s plans to downgrade or close the Combat Readiness Training Center, and I brought Republicans and Democrats together to protect it,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who worked with fellow Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Savannah, to save the center. “It is vital to our national defense, and it’s a very important military asset of the state of Georgia.”

Other Georgia-based programs earmarked for funding included A-10 fighter aircraft and HH-60W helicopters at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, C-130 aircraft at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, the new Columbia-class submarines likely to be stationed at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, hosting of the new Advanced Battle Management System at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, and strengthening the power grid at the Army’s Fort Stewart in Hinesville.

The defense bill also includes a 4.6% pay raise for the troops and a provision allowing the Pentagon to adjust the basic allowance for housing rates in areas where housing costs are high.

“I hear from Georgia military families often about how stressful and costly it can be to find adequate base housing or relocate to another base community,” Warnock said. “So, I’m particularly proud to have secured my provisions that address these issues into the final bill.”

The defense bill cleared the House of Representatives and Senate earlier this month.

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