McBath, Ossoff reintroduce prison oversight bill

ATLANTA – Two Democratic members of Georgia’s congressional delegation introduced legislation Wednesday to overhaul oversight of the federal prison system.

The bill, sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, and in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Jon Ossoff, would require the Justice Department’s inspector general to inspect all 122 U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities and make recommendations for fixing problems.

The inspector general must report findings and recommendations to Congress and the public, and the bureau must respond to all inspection reports within 60 days with a corrective action plan.

The legislation also would establish an independent ombudsman to investigate the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated people and staff. The ombudsman would create a secure hotline and online form for family members, friends, and representatives of incarcerated people to submit complaints and inquiries.

“Incarcerated Americans should not fear death when they enter our federal prison system, and correctional officers should not fear for their safety in their workplace,” McBath said Wednesday. “Our federal prisons must serve as institutions that rehabilitate and prepare Americans for reentry into society, and that cannot happen without putting meaningful accountability measures in place.”

Ossoff chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which held hearings last year on conditions inside federal prisons. The senator introduced a prisons oversight bill late last year, but the Senate didn’t act on it before time ran out on the 2021-22 congressional term.

“My bipartisan investigations of corruption, abuse, and misconduct in the federal prison system revealed an urgent need to overhaul federal prison oversight,” Ossoff said. “I am bringing Republicans and Democrats together to crack down on corruption, strengthen public safety, and protect civil rights.”

The legislation has bipartisan backing. Cosponsors in the House include Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., while Ossoff’s Senate bill is being cosponsored by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

Kemp signs anti-crime package

BUFORD – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a series of tough-on-crime bills into law Wednesday, including a crackdown on gangs recruiting minors.

“We’re saying loud and clear, ‘Come after our kids, and we will be coming after you,’ ” Kemp told members of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association at a conference at Lake Lanier Islands’ Legacy Lodge. “We will not let up in Georgia until gangs are literally gone because their members are behind bars.”

Majority Republicans in the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 44 – part of the governor’s legislative agenda for 2023 – voting along party lines. The bill imposes tougher penalties for gang recruitment, including at least 10 years in prison for recruiting anyone under age 17 or with a disability.

Legislative Democrats opposed the legislation because of the mandatory prison sentences, arguing such prison terms take away discretion from judges. Democratic lawmakers also objected to a provision in the bill restricting judges’ abilities to allow people to be released without bond if they have been convicted of bond jumping within the past five years.

The other bills Kemp signed Wednesday enjoyed bipartisan support. The list included measures to:

— increase penalties for criminals who deliberately damage critical infrastructure, including power stations and water supplies.

— make it harder for thieves to sell stolen items including catalytic converters.

— create a grant program to help local law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute motor vehicle crimes.

— eliminate a requirement that prosecutors disclose the home addresses and other personal information of non-sworn employees of law enforcement agencies called to testify at criminal trials.

— allow law enforcement officers to request that their personally identifiable information be removed from local, publicly available property records.

—  establish the offenses of interfering with or harming a public safety animal or search and rescue animal and provide for punishment.

— designate Sept. 11 as First Responders Appreciation Day.

Kemp signs bill offering grants for veterans’ mental health services

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian signed bipartisan legislation Tuesday establishing a mental health support program grant for veterans and their families.

House Bill 414, which the General Assembly passed unanimously, will provide matching grants to nonprofits that serve veterans, subject to the availability of funding.

“This important legislation provides support and resources for the brave men and women who have worn a uniform for our country, and Georgia is proud to be a state that honors and values its veterans,” Kemp said during a signing ceremony inside the state Capitol.

The Georgia Department of Veterans Service will run the program, with grants to be awarded to applicants based on certain eligibility criteria. To be considered for funding, applicants must provide behavioral health services using evidence-based practices, train staff members in military culture, and connect veterans or members of their families with needed community-based mental health services in a timely manner.

Applications for grant funds will be available soon. Nonprofit community behavioral health-care providers with experience in treating military service members and veterans are encouraged to apply.

Georgia’s Medicaid redetermination process gets rolling 

Georgia has created an ad campaign created to raise awareness about the Medicaid eligibility redetermination process that started this month. (Credit: Georgia Department of Human Services/Department of Community Health)

ATLANTA – The complex process of reassessing Georgians’ eligibility for Medicaid has started.  

COVID-era Medicaid regulations prevented anyone enrolled in Medicaid from being disenrolled during the public health emergency.  

But those pandemic-era regulations ended at the start of this month, and Georgia will now have to determine which Medicaid members remain eligible for coverage.  

In Georgia, children from low-income families as well as pregnant women are eligible for Medicaid. The state also provides Medicaid to new mothers for up to 12 months after delivery. Some very low-income adults as well as aged, blind and certain disabled populations are also eligible.  

Prior to the pandemic, Georgians enrolled in Medicaid had their eligibility checked yearly. But all of those eligibility checks were put on pause for several years.  

That meant that teenagers who typically would have aged out of the program or new mothers whose pregnancy-related Medicaid would have expired remained on the rolls.  

The state estimates that about half a million Georgians were newly enrolled in Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids during the pandemic. The total number of Medicaid enrollees is now about 2.7 million, about one-fourth of the state’s population.  

Each of those members will need to have their eligibility redetermined, a heavy lift for the state.  

The Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH), which oversees the state Medicaid program, is partnering with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to manage the process.  

With the redetermination process expected to take more than a year, the fiscal 2023 mid-year budget includes funding to hire 450 case managers to manage the process at DHS.  

The agency also plans to install self-service kiosks in more than 400 public library locations.

The state has developed a marketing campaign — represented by the “George A. Peach” mascot — to help Georgians learn more about the new process. Materials are currently available in Spanish, Burmese, Korean, Nepali, Portuguese, and Vietnamese as well as English.  

“I have seen the state agencies, both DCH and DHS, come forward with really good faith efforts to plan as best they can,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future.  

“The trickiest part of this seems to be maybe staffing for both DHS and DCH … hiring enough Medicaid eligibility workers. Making sure they are trained properly and prepared to do that job over the next 12 to 14 months is going to be very difficult in this work and labor environment.”

State budget hearings earlier this year highlighted the labor shortages and high turnover rates most state agencies face. 

Many adults will lose coverage because Georgia is one of 10 states that have not fully expanded Medicaid, Colbert said.  

Some children also may lose coverage because of the complexity of the bureaucratic process, she added.  

“Some folks are going to be ineligible for Medicaid and not eligible for anything else,” Colbert said. “We will see very large coverage losses.”  

Other adults who lose coverage may be able to enroll in Affordable Care Act plans available on the marketplace. Those who lose coverage will be able to apply for plans as early as 60 days before their Medicaid/PeachCare coverage ends and up until July 31, 2024.  

However, only those Georgians who earn 100% or more of the federal poverty level ($13,590 for a single person) will qualify.  

Those who earn less than the federal poverty level will be able to seek coverage through a new Georgia program, called Georgia Pathways, that launches on July 1.  

Under that program, Georgians who work, volunteer, or enroll in educational programs for at least 80 hours per week can also qualify for the state Medicaid program. Estimates of how many people will be eligible for that program vary.  

“There may be upwards of 200,000 members already on Medicaid that would qualify for [Pathways],” DCH Commissioner Caylee Noggle told lawmakers in January. “They will be transitioned to that [program] during their eligibility redetermination if they’re eligible.” 

But the number could be much lower, said Colbert of Georgians for a Healthy Future.  

“It’s likely then that fewer than 100,000 folks are going to gain coverage because of really difficult bureaucratic work requirements and premiums that are not standard for the Medicaid program,” Colbert said this week.  

Officials recommend several steps for Georgians who are enrolled in Medicaid or PeachCare for Kids.  

They should ensure that their contact information is up to date using the state’s online Gateway portal, in person at local offices or by phone at 1-877-GA-DHS-GO. That way, people will be sure to receive redetermination notices.  

Next, Georgians should keep their eyes open for a redetermination notice. People will receive the notices either by email or traditional mail about 45 days before their deadline. The notices will include instructions for submitting updated income information (including pay stubs) and other details.  

People concerned they will lose Medicaid coverage can start familiarizing themselves with the plans offered on to help ensure a smooth transition. 

Those who are determined to be ineligible for Medicaid will have 30 days to appeal that decision.  

Colbert noted that the process has only been underway for less than a month, so it’s difficult to pinpoint trouble spots.  

“We are hearing some people think that it’s disinformation or that it’s a scam, that it’s an effort for some unknown actor to try to get people’s personal information,” Colbert said. “It’s more important than ever that Georgians really understand the importance and the impact of Medicaid.” 

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

Georgia Power reduces fuel costs recovery request

ATLANTA – Georgia Power has significantly reduced its request to recover higher fuel costs from customers.

In a filing with the state Public Service Commission (PSC) dated Monday, Georgia Power is seeking to recover about $6.6 billion, down more than $1 billion from the request the company submitted to the PSC in February.

As a result, the hit on the average residential bill – for customers who use 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month – is down from $23 to $15.90.

The utility’s request is based on the actual unrecovered fuel cost balance through March 31 and projected fuel costs through the end of next month using a more recent natural gas price forecast.

Georgia Power officials cite the same increases in energy prices that have hit motorists at the pump for the need to recover higher fuel costs from customers.

The proposed fuel cost recovery is one of three sources of higher bills for Georgia Power customers. The PSC approved a $1.8 billion increase in base rates for Georgia Power late last year, which raised the average residential customer’s monthly bill by $3.60 starting in January.

Customers also will be expected to pay for bringing into service the first of two new nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle south of Augusta. The reactor is scheduled to begin commercial operation by June.

The commission will hold hearings on Georgia Power’s fuel cost recovery request early next month and is scheduled to vote on the proposal May 16.