Mental health bill gains unanimous approval in state House committee 

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chairs the state House of Representative’s public health committee, which unanimously approved a new mental health bill Tuesday. Cooper was joined by Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Georgia (left), and Jeff Breedlove, chief of policy and communications for the Georgia Council for Recovery (right), just after the committee approved the bill.(Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The second chapter in Georgia’s mental health reform effort Tuesday gained the unanimous approval of the state House of Representatives’ Public Health Committee.   

Cosponsored by Reps. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Atlanta, the lengthy new bill aims to increase the size of the mental-health workforce in Georgia and make it easier for people who cycle between the streets, emergency rooms and jails to get the help they need. 

“What we’ve seen is a commitment by the House in a bipartisan way to continue to save lives by advancing policy to transform the broken system into the system that serves Georgia families,” Jeff Breedlove, chief of policy and communications for the Georgia Council for Recovery, told Capitol Beat just after the committee vote.  

To address Georgia’s workforce shortage, the bill would create a loan repayment program for people who are already in practice providing mental-health services and agree to provide care in underserved communities. That would build on last year’s measure that created a similar loan forgiveness program for students. This year’s proposal focuses on encouraging those who are already in practice to serve those in need as soon as possible.  

The bill also would create a task force to look at what the state can do to streamline mental-health licensing procedures, including creating a way for people who are already licensed in foreign countries to get licenses in Georgia.

It would reform some disciplinary measures for nurses and other professionals facing behavioral health or substance abuse problems to bring them in line with current procedures for doctors.  

Rep. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, who is a doctor herself, was able to get a last-minute amendment that would require a workforce study commission to examine cultural competence and language so as to better understand how the state can meet the needs of Georgia’s diverse population.  

“That’s a pro-business amendment,” Breedlove said. “I think it’s so important as Georgia touts itself as the number one state to do business that we pay attention to the changing demographics of the state.”  

The bill would also commission a “bed study” that would examine how the state’s inpatient psychiatric treatment beds are allocated. Oliver has expressed concern that children from out of state are being treated in Georgia’s facilities in part because they’re less expensive.  

“Do we not have enough beds or are we are not using them correctly?” Oliver said.  

To address the problem of “familiar faces” – people who require many health-care, criminal-justice and homeless-related resources due to severe mental illnesses – the bill requires the state Department of Community Affairs to undertake a study about how the Peach State could provide better housing for people with serious mental illness. 

Two “peer support specialists” would be added to the state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, which is tasked with studying Georgia’s mental-health system and recommending policy reforms. Peer support specialists are people who have lived through mental-health or substance-abuse challenges and use that experience, coupled with specialized training, to help others with similar problems.  

“It’s important for peers to be on there because they are the ones … who have been through this system and know what works and what doesn’t work,” said Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Georgia.  

The bill now moves to the full state House of Representatives for consideration, where it must receive approval by next Monday’s “Crossover Day” deadline. 

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

Georgia Power seeks $2.1B fuel costs recovery

ATLANTA – The higher fuel costs Georgians have been paying at the gas pumps soon could be reflected in their electric bills.

Georgia Power filed a request with the state Public Service Commission (PSC) Tuesday to recover $2.1 billion in additional fuel costs the Atlanta-based utility has incurred during the last two years and that are projected to occur during the next two years.

If approved, the proposal would add $17 to $23 to the monthly bill of the average Georgia Power customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours of power each month.

“Just as Georgians paid higher prices at the gas pump in 2022, Georgia Power also paid more for the natural gas (on average three times more) and other fuels we used to generate electricity,” Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said Tuesday.

“These increases are solely a result of rising energy prices – and Georgia Power earns zero profit from these fuel costs.”

Georgia Power executives first announced the company would be seeking fuel costs recovery this month last year during testimony before the PSC at hearings on Georgia Power’s 2022 rate hike request.

The commission approved a $1.8 billion rate increase for the utility in December, which raised the average residential customer’s monthly bill by $3.60. The rate hike took effect last month.

Georgia Power’s final requested amount and approximate bill impacts, which will reflect more recent fuel prices, will be provided in April.

State House panel passes COAM reform bill

ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at reforming Georgia’s coin-operated amusement machines (COAM) industry cleared a committee in the state House of Representatives Tuesday.

House Bill 353 would award non-cash redemption gift cards to winners that could be redeemed anywhere in the state for any legal product. Under current law, COAM winners can redeem their prizes only for merchandise sold in the store where the machine they played is located.

Gift cards would take away the temptation to illegally pay out prizes in cash, a problem that has plagued the industry for years, Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, the bill’s chief sponsor and chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, told his fellow committee members.

“Twenty years ago, this business was almost put out of business because of video poker,” he said. “It had gotten so out of hand there was little respect for the law.”

Powell said conditions have changed since the Georgia Lottery Corp. assumed oversight of the COAM industry and brought technology to bear on those who might otherwise be inclined to cheat.

“These machines are tethered to the lottery,” he said. “The lottery knows everything that goes on with them.”

Powell said the 10% share the state derives from COAM proceeds for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs has become the fastest growing source of revenue for the lottery. He said going with gift cards would drive up that revenue even further.

While the bill cleared the committee unanimously, it has received pushback from the industry. Norcross-based Lucky Bucks, one of the major suppliers of COAM machines in Georgia, sent a memo to members of the General Assembly two weeks ago complaining the bill doesn’t address a “lack of rigorous and consistent enforcement” of existing laws governing the industry.

Among other things, the company is asking lawmakers to extend the period retailers that cancel contracts with machine suppliers must wait before they can enter new contracts with different suppliers from the current nine months to 36. The longer wait period would be aimed at discouraging suppliers from stealing retailers from competitors.

Powell’s bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote. Meanwhile, a Senate version of COAM reform is pending before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

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

State House approves “Safe Schools Act”

Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, speaks in favor of the Safe Schools Act on Monday.

ATLANTA – The state House of Representatives handily passed a bill Monday aimed at bolstering school safety in Georgia.  

The “Safe Schools Act,” which has the strong support of Gov. Brian Kemp, passed on a 148-20 vote.  

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the House, would require schools to conduct an intruder or active-shooter drill by Oct. 1 each year.  

It would also require public schools to submit school safety plans to the Georgia Emergency Management Association as well as local emergency management and law enforcement agencies.

The legislation would create a mechanism for school employees to earn a “school safety and anti-gang endorsement” after completing a special training program. And it encourages colleges and universities to include training for future teachers in best practices for safe schools and deterring gangs.

Though the bill breezed through the House, it drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers.  

“Unfortunately, there is no evidence to indicate this bill is going to make our schools safer,” said freshman Rep. Anne Allen Westbrook, D-Savannah. “It’s just one more burden this body is putting on teachers and students in Georgia’s public schools.”

Westbrook cited a study conducted by researchers at Georgia Tech showing increases in anxiety and depression among students for 90 days after active-shooter drills.   

“If we want to truly increase school safety, there are some proactive measures we could consider,” she said. 

Westbrook urged her House colleagues to pass bills that would increase punishments for allowing children access to guns or not adequately securing guns.  

Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, voted for the bill but also urged lawmakers to consider passing gun-control measures.  

“We have so many options at our disposal to not make this a reality for our babies and their teachers,” Evans said.

Evans criticized Republican leaders for not giving gun-control bills hearings in committee this session. 

Freshman Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, a former teacher, spoke out in favor of the bill. 

“It gives our children a tool so that if an unfortunately horrible act were to happen at their school, they know what they do,” Hagan said. “They shouldn’t have to do these drills, but the sad fact is these things do happen.”  

The bill will now move to the Georgia Senate for consideration.

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

Georgia Senate passes bill exempting rural hospitals from CON

ATLANTA – Legislation exempting most rural hospitals from Georgia’s certificate of need law cleared the state Senate Monday.

Senators voted 42-13 to no longer require proposed new acute-care hospitals in counties with populations of fewer than 50,000 residents to have to prove to the state that the medical services they plan to offer are needed in their community.

“We have an access-to-health-care problem in rural Georgia,” said Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, the bill’s chief sponsor. “This is a prudent step to improve access to care.”

Georgia’s CON law was first passed in 1979 to comply with a federal mandate aimed at reducing health-care costs by avoiding duplication. About three dozen states currently have CON laws on their books.

Other states, including California and Texas, have repealed their CON laws since Congress did away with the mandate, Dolezal said.

“The original intent was to suppress the volume of health care,” he said. “As you suppress the supply of something, you decrease access.”

But Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said the CON law protects existing hospitals from being encroached upon by new facilities that hurt them financially by taking away their patients.

“The reason CON exists is because a hospital could locate too close to another hospital,” she said. “Patients are poached.”

Indeed, when Senate Bill 99 was presented to the Senate Regulated Industries Committee earlier this month, Dolezal said it was prompted by a private developer’s plan to build a 100-bed acute-care hospital in Butts County. 

Representatives of the Wellstar Health System told committee members exempting the proposed hospital from the CON process would let the new facility open for business close to both the 25-bed Sylvan Grove Hospital in Jackson and the 160-bed Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital in Griffin.

“You will be adversely affecting a hospital that’s in place a few miles [on the other side of] of county line,” Orrock said Monday.

But Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, said the legislation requires rural hospitals exempted from the CON law to accept both Medicare and Medicaid enrollees and dedicate at least 10% of their incomes to indigent care.

Opponents of CON reform have long argued that significantly reducing CON requirements or repealing the law entirety would lead a plethora of physician-owned ambulatory surgery centers to open near existing hospitals and – since they wouldn’t legally have to accept indigent patients – siphon off paying patients and leave existing hospitals with a heavy concentration of non-paying patients.

“Hospitals are closing down in rural Georgia,” Cowsert said. “This is to encourage new ones.”

A second CON bill that has cleared Cowsert’s committee goes farther than Senate Bill 99 in seeking to eliminate the CON law.

“Senate Bill 99 is more like a rifle shot narrowly focused on adequate medical services for rural areas of our state,” he said.

The bill now moves to the Georgia House of Representatives.