Federal judge blocks new EPA water-protection rule in Georgia and 23 other states

The Chattahoochee River (photo: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – A federal district court judge in North Dakota has temporarily blocked the operation of a new federal rule in 24 states about what water bodies the federal government can regulate. 

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of 24 states about the definition of the term “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, under the federal Clean Water Act. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr helped lead the lawsuit. 

The definition of WOTUS is important because it determines to which waterways federal environmental protections apply. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency finalized the new definition last month. It includes many tributaries and streams as well as “adjacent wetlands,” or wetlands close to other waters regulated by the Clean Water Act. 

In the case of Georgia, tributaries would include the Tallulah River, Sweetwater Creek, and Peachtree Creek. Adjacent wetlands would include portions of the Chickasawhatchee Swamp in Southwest Georgia and Peters Bay near Lakeland in South Georgia. 

That definition has been challenged by the attorneys general of 24 states who contend these water bodies should fall solely under the purview of state regulation. They want the new WOTUS definition declared invalid. 

This week, District Judge Daniel Hovland agreed with the states’ request for a preliminary injunction, temporarily preventing the federal government from applying the new definition while litigation is underway. 

“The twenty-four States in this case have persuasively shown that the new 2023 Rule poses a threat to their sovereign rights and amounts to irreparable harm,” Hovland wrote. 

“The States involved in this litigation will expend unrecoverable resources complying with a rule unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny,” added Hovland, who was nominated for his federal judgeship by then-President George W. Bush.

For its part, the EPA contends that the new WOTUS definition is in line with what Congress intended when it passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. 

“This rule establishes a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ that is grounded in the authority provided by Congress in the Clean Water Act, the best available science, and extensive implementation experience stewarding the nation’s waters,” the agency said in a statement about the new rule. 

“The final rule will cover those waters that Congress fundamentally sought to protect in the Clean Water Act—traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, interstate waters, as well as upstream water resources that significantly affect those waters,” the statement added. 

Georgia Attorney General Carr hailed this week’s preliminary injunction as a victory. 

“This outcome is a major win for Georgia’s farmers and private landowners, who were facing an administration intent on regulating nearly every conceivable body of water in the country,” Carr said. 

A statement provided by his office said the new definition of WOTUS would require farmers to get federal permission to fill or dredge waterways or wetlands and that it would force developers and miners to obtain federal permission who want to “make use of their land.” 

Environmental groups criticized the decision. 

“Rather than uphold the longstanding protections and bipartisan practice embodied in the rule, the ruling … makes it more difficult to reliably protect the wetlands and headwater streams that keep Georgia’s rivers clean for fishing, swimming, and as sources of drinking water,” said Kelly Moser, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

The three other states leading the lawsuit with Georgia are Iowa, West Virginia and North Dakota. Southern states that have joined the lawsuit are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

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

Kemp signs five education bills into law 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday signed five education bills into law, including measures aimed at bolstering school safety and improving literacy. 

“These bills will help improve literacy in our state and ensure our schools have the resources they need to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for both students and teachers,” Kemp said. 

“As governor, and as a father of three daughters, I want to make sure every Georgia student can take part in the unprecedented opportunity here in the Peach State.”

Kemp signed into law the Safe Schools Act, a key part of his legislative agenda this year. The new law requires all public schools to conduct an “intruder alert drill” by Oct. 1 of each school year. It also creates a voluntary school safety and anti-gang endorsement that teachers and other school employees can earn by completing a training program. 

Kemp also signed two bills aimed at improving early literacy in Georgia. 

The Georgia Early Literacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Bethany Ballard, R-Warner Robins, a former teacher, aims to improve the quality of early reading instruction.   

The new law will require schools to screen students from kindergarten to third grade on their reading proficiency three times a year. Students who are identified as falling behind in reading will receive an individual reading improvement plan within 30 days of being identified followed by intensive reading intervention until they catch up. 

School systems will also be required to amp up training of teachers in “the science of reading” – a method of teaching reading that draws on evidence from psychology and neuroscience and includes phonics instruction.   

A companion bill sponsored by state Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, requires Georgia to set up a 30-member Council on Literacy. The members will include state legislators, a state Board of Education member, literacy experts, teachers, and local school district officials.  

The council will be responsible for ensuring the implementation of the Early Literacy Act and provide an annual report that includes recommendations for addressing problems in the state’s literacy efforts.  

Two additional bills signed by Kemp aim to improve school conditions for students with certain health conditions.  

One new law, sponsored by Rep. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, allows all Georgia schools to obtain a prescription for and keep on hand “ready-to-use glucagon.” This drug helps people – often those with diabetes – in the case of very low blood sugar. It can be administered nasally or by injection. 

Another bill signed by Kemp aims to create safer school conditions for students with epilepsy and other seizure disorders. Sponsored by Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, the law will allow parents or guardians to submit a seizure action plan to schools for students who have seizure disorders, including epilepsy. The plans will specify what school personnel should do in the case of a seizure. 

The new law will also require the state Department of Education to develop a model seizure action plan that districts and parents can use to help formulate their plans and develop guidelines for training school nurses and personnel in seizure disorders and their management. 

School bus drivers who are responsible for transporting students with seizure disorders also must receive copies of the action plan and seizure-disorder first aid training. 

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

Prescription drug price reform bill fell apart in state Senate over small business concerns 

Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta.

ATLANTA – After sailing through the Georgia House of Representatives, a close vote in a Senate committee blocked the progress of a bill aimed at reducing some prescription drug costs for consumers. 

The “Lowering Prescription Drug Costs for Patients Act” would have passed on prescription drug rebates to some Georgia patients at the cash register. It was one of several health-related measures to mire in the 2023 Georgia General Assembly session.

The bill took aim at pharmacy benefit managers, often called PBMs. These companies are designed to help manage prescription drugs for health insurers and they often require payments – known as rebates – from drug manufacturers for featuring certain medications in approved drug lists for patients. 

The Georgia bill would have required half of the value of those rebates to be passed along to Georgia patients on many commercial insurance plans. 

“We don’t have any problem with … with the company making a reasonable profit,” said Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, the bill’s sponsor. “When a corporate desire for excess profits starts to harm patients, I think that’s when we as legislators ought to step in and protect patients.”

“The top three PBMs control 80% of the drug choices that all Americans have,” Newton added. “One example is Caremark, CVS and Aetna – that’s a combination that has a common ownership.” 

Other large PBMs Georgians may be familiar with are OptumRx, owned by UnitedHealth Group, and Express Scripts, owned by Cigna Healthcare. 

Opponents argued the bill would have reduced the flexibility of small businesses to decide how to spend pharmacy rebates. 

“If it passes, then that limits and restricts the flexibility of designing plans that will fit the overall group [of employees],” said Mychal Walker, chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Georgia leadership council. “The owner will not be able to utilize those benefits overall in order to lower the costs.” 

Walker and other opponents also argued the measure would drive up insurance premium costs. 

Newton disagreed with that, saying the measure would increase premium costs by just over $1 per month and that the small increase would be offset by lowered drug costs for patients. 

“[Patients will] know that they or their loved ones can access medication therapy that their doctor prescribes and that they’ll be able to do it affordably,” Newton said. 

A late March hearing on the bill had initially been billed as “meeting only.”  Health and Human Services committee chair Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, called a vote while the meeting was in progress. 

The measure lost in a 6-5 vote that did not fall along party lines, a departure from the regular partisan votes that often drive Gold Dome decisions. 

Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, was one of the Democrats swayed by the argument that the bill would stymie small-business owners’ control over how to use the drug rebates. 

“There’s no guarantee that every employee would get the prescription benefit since the rebate dollars would have to be spent down at the point of sale only,” Halpern said. 

Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, shared Halpern’s concern.

“If we keep restricting options and flexibility for small businesses, they’re going to end up saying we can no longer afford to provide health benefits,” Walker said. 

Newton pushed back against that argument, contending that the rebates in question contribute to PBM and health-insurer profits and do not get passed on to small businesses. 

“A lot of what they’re making [profit] off of, is not passing it through to reduce [health insurance] premiums, but passing it through to their shareholders, which normally I don’t mind until it becomes excessive,” Newton said. “When excessive profit hurts patients, I think that’s our obligation to step in at that point and defend the patient.

Patient advocates were bitterly disappointed by the committee decision. 

“For another year, PBMs and their affiliated insurance companies will continue to deny Georgians with chronic illnesses the benefits of negotiated drug rebates as they profit from the sickest of our citizens,” said Heather Breeden, the senior manager of advocacy for the National Multiple Sclerosis society. 

“We are really perplexed … that our own legislators will not stand behind the patients and put them first,” echoed Dorothy Leone-Glasser, executive director of Advocates for Responsible Care. “It’s very disheartening.” 

Newton was also disappointed but told Capitol Beat that he hopes the bill will get another chance at full passage during the 2024 session, the second year of the current two-year legislative term.

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

Kemp signs bill increasing penalties for failing to post human trafficking notices

First lady Marty Kemp looks on as Gov. Brian Kemp signs a human trafficking bill into law in Atlanta. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Tuesday a bill that increases the penalties for business owners who fail to post required notices about resources for human trafficking victims.  

Kemp was joined by his wife, Marty Kemp, who has used her time as first lady to work on stopping human trafficking in Georgia and assisting victims of the crime.  

The new law increases the penalty for business owners who fail to post notices that explain how victims of human trafficking can reach national and state hotlines to get help.  

“This common-sense measure imposes minimum fines for failing to post required notices by public entrances, where they will be easily seen by the public, and in restrooms where victims of trafficking may be able to see the notice while away from their trafficker,” Marty Kemp said at a bill signing ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion.  

“It may not sound like much, but the reality is this simple step could save lives if the notice reaches the right person. This is especially critical in busy areas where traffickers often hide in plain sight.” 

Business owners who fail to post the notices in both English and Spanish can be fined $500 to $1,000 for a first conviction and from $1,000 to $5,000 for a second conviction. The law allows business owners up to 30 days to post the notices after being notified by law enforcement that they are in violation of the law. 

Georgia law requires the notices to be posted in certain types of businesses, including truck stops, bars, adult entertainment businesses, hospitals, airports, rail and bus stations, hotels, and government buildings.  

State Sen. Mike Hodges, R-Brunswick, sponsored the bill and it was carried in the House of Representatives by Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville. Both served as floor leaders for Kemp during the 2023 legislative session and attended the bill signing along with other GOP legislators. 

The measure passed with only one “no” vote in the state Senate and unanimously in the House of Representatives.  

The bill signing ceremony was preceded by a meeting of the GRACE Commission, which is chaired by Marty Kemp. The commission is made up of government and business leaders as well as representatives of non-profit and faith groups that work to end human trafficking and help victims of the crime.  

Attorney General Chris Carr is a member of the commission and has made fighting human trafficking a priority. His office assisted 116 victims, led or assisted 33 investigations, and secured six convictions in 2022, Carr said during the meeting.  

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

Becerra addresses new insulin cap, abortion drug during Atlanta visit  

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., addressed national and state health concerns in Altanta on Monday. (Photo credit: John Arthur Brown)

ATLANTA – U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra addressed national and state health concerns Monday from senior drug prices to abortion during an Atlanta visit. 

Becerra, joined by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., spent the morning visiting Ser Familia, a Latino community center in Norcross.

The Democratic duo touted a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year that sets a $35 monthly cap on the cost of insulin for Americans over age 65 enrolled in Medicare.  

“No senior in Georgia, no senior in America will have to pay more than $35 per month for insulin,” Ossoff said about the new law, which took effect at the start of the year.  

“There was fierce opposition from drug companies who are accustomed to making a lot of money. … We stood up in passing this law to save seniors in Georgia hundreds of dollars per year and helped them afford life-saving medicine.”

Becerra shared the story of a senior in Texas who purchased insulin at the new low price but returned to the pharmacy to settle up because she thought she had erroneously underpaid and felt guilty.  

“You should not be paying more than $35,” Becerra said. “If you are, you’re entitled to your money back.”  

“Save that money for other important things or some kind of gift … for your grandchild,” Becerra quipped.  

Becerra and Ossoff added that under the new law, doctor-prescribed preventive vaccines such as the shingles vaccine are now free for seniors on Medicare.  

Becerra and Ossoff also addressed a Texas federal judge’s ruling last week that a drug used in medication abortions, mifepristone, was improperly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 2000. 

However, a different federal judge in Washington state issued a ruling blocking the FDA from removing mifepristone from the market.  

“We feel very confident that, ultimately, we will prevail in court,” Becerra said Monday. “One judge in one court in one state should not have the ability to undermine safe and effective medicines that millions of Americans rely on.” 

Both Becerra and Ossoff said mifepristone is still legal and available.  

During an afternoon event in Atlanta, Becerra addressed Georgia health care, suggesting that the state fully expand Medicaid as 40 other states have done.  

“What we can do in places like the state of Georgia is offer the chance to make this a unified system of health,” he said. “That’s why the Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand access to health care through Medicaid. We [the federal government] would pay for most of it.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other state Republican leaders have opposed full Medicaid expansion, arguing it would be too costly and that a more limited expansion plan that offers Medicaid to some low-income Georgians who meet work or education requirements is a better fit for the state. That plan is set to take effect this summer.

Becerra also addressed the upcoming nationwide Medicaid “unwinding” in which pandemic-era Medicaid regulations will be relaxed and states will need to determine whether current Medicaid enrollees are still eligible for the program. 

“We all want to do a good job because these are our kids,” Becerra said. “Let’s get to a wellness care system and move away from an illness care system.”  

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