A raft of health bills dealing with social issues were moving forward as a hectic Crossover Day came to a close at the state...

A raft of health bills dealing with social issues were moving forward as a hectic Crossover Day came to a close at the state Legislature.

To have a shot at becoming a law, bills had until Wednesday — Crossover Day, or Day 30 of the 40-day General Assembly session — to pass at least one chamber. (Lawmakers, though, still can take a stalled bill and attach it to another piece of legislation that has crossed over.)

Unlike in previous years, the budgets for state health agencies did not include major funding cuts.

While those budgets drew little criticism, several attention-grabbing bills on social issues beat the Crossover Day deadline amid sometimes spirited debate. These bills were spearheaded by Republicans, whose party holds large majorities in each chamber.

One of the most highly publicized bills – passing the House last week – would reduce the time for elective abortion from 26 to 20 weeks. On Wednesday, the Senate added another abortion bill, prohibiting the state employee health plan from providing coverage for the procedure. The outcome angered Democratic women, who  walked out of the chamber after voting against the abortion bill.

Meanwhile, legislation to require ‘‘personal growth activities’’ for food stamp applicants also passed the Senate on Wednesday after a long debate.

The lead sponsor of the food stamp legislation, Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), said the goal “is to move people back to work.’’ Many food stamp recipients do not have a high school diploma, said Ligon, and he cited education as the kind of self-improvement activity envisioned in the bill.

Sen. Horacena Tate (D-Atlanta), though, argued that the bill ‘‘has many detrimental effects.’’ Pointing to the economic downturn, which has caused more people to turn to government programs for help, Tate said, “It really grieves me that . . . we are putting an additional burden on people who are doing the best they can do.’’

Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) revealed during the debate that she had been on welfare 35 years ago, as noted by Walter C. Jones in the Savannah Morning News. “If I had been told that I had to go through professional development (as a college graduate), I would have been totally devastated by that,” she said. “I needed money for food. I needed money for gas to even get to the office to apply for that.”

Senate Bill 312, which would set up a pilot ‘‘personal growth’’ program, passed by a 40-14 vote.

Both the House and Senate passed bills Wednesday to require drug testing of Georgians who apply for welfare benefits.

House Bill 861, which also would allow random testing of people already on welfare, was approved after an often emotional floor debate.

Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) called the bill “nothing short of an attack on the poor,’’ adding that it lacks a drug treatment component. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) said the drug-testing proposal would take food “out of the mouths of babes.’’

And Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) said the bill, if passed, will undoubtedly draw a lawsuit, as did a similar law in Florida. The Florida law has been halted by a federal judge.

“The taxpayer will pay for this litigation,’’ Oliver predicted.

Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) countered that the drug-testing bill would save money by reducing the number of people applying for welfare. “This is about the taxpayer,’’ he said.

And Rep. Michael Harden (R-Toccoa), the lead sponsor, added that the legislation would protect children by discouraging drug use among adults. “I’ve never met a drug addict that’s responsible,’’ he said.

Contraception coverage

Also Wednesday, the Senate approved legislation that would provide an exemption for religious organizations from the state mandate that insurance policies cover contraceptives. The arguments made in the debate over the measure echoed those heard on the national level recently.

Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus) said Senate Bill 460 ‘‘is not a bill to prohibit contraception.’’ He called the proposed exemption ‘‘a matter of religious liberty.’’

But Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) vigorously opposed the contraception bill, saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’’

She called the proposal a Republican attack on women’s access to health and right to make health decisions. “Birth control pills are used for other medical reasons’’ besides contraception, Orrock added.

A new bill banning assisted suicide passed the House. The Georgia Supreme Court recently struck down the state’s 1994 law on assisted suicide because it targeted only those who publicly advertise their involvement in the practice.

Among other topics:

Health insurance

Earlier in the week, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill (1166) requiring health insurers that offer individual policies to sell ‘‘child-only’’ policies for those parents who want to buy coverage for their kids. Here’s a GHN story on how this issue arose.

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday seeking to create a regional coalition with other states to sell health insurance. The goal of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta), is to increase competition and lower costs. It was opposed by Democrats concerned about the dropping of important benefits now required under Georgia law.

Another health insurance bill, one to create exchanges for small businesses and individuals, as required by the national health reform law, did not get a hearing. (Here’s GHN’s article on the health exchange bill.)

Scope of practice

Advanced practice nurses would gain more authority to order CT scans and MRIs under Senate Bill 386, which passed the Senate.

The Senate also passed legislation to allow pharmacists to give immunizations other than just flu shots.

Child-related issues

A proposal to require schools to train personnel to help students manage their diabetes was approved by the House. (Here’s a GHN article that describes the bill.)

The health care budgets had good news for children’s health: Money was restored for a program providing for home visits to young, at-risk children and linking them to services.

Senate Bill 355, sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman, would require any adult who witnesses child abuse or who receives reliable information from another witness to report it to law enforcement within 72 hours.

Unterman, a Buford Republican, told Georgia Health News that she crafted a bill on child abuse three years ago, but that the Penn State sex abuse scandal helped push the new legislation forward in the Senate this year. “The elderly and the young need protection,’’ she said.

But a bill that would require school teams to remove a student from a game who shows signs of having a concussion, on the House calendar, did not come up for  vote by late Wednesday evening. Here’s a description of the bill.

Regulation and reorganization

Legislation backed by state Attorney General Sam Olens to crack down on “pill mills’’ passed the House on Monday. House Bill 972 would require that doctors who own pain clinics get a special license from the state.

Olens said the issue has become urgent. “As a result of a tough law passed in Florida last year, we have seen a rapid influx of what amounts to narcotic traffickers into our state,’’ he said in a statement. “It is essential that Georgia enact a similar law to stop these criminals from moving their businesses here and harming our communities.’’

Legislation passed by the House would make Vocational Rehabilitation a standalone agency attached to the Department of Human Services. It’s currently under the state Department of Labor.

A proposal adding more oversight of the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission was approved unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday.

But a proposed overhaul of the state licensing process for professionals, including those in health care, was recently withdrawn by Secretary of State Brian Kemp before it came up for a vote. It had met vocal opposition from nurses, pharmacists and other groups of health professionals.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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