‘A lot of work to do’ on state health agenda

Public health spending, Medicaid eligibility, and the planned closing of a Rome hospital were major topics as two health agencies gave budget presentations Thursday to state legislators.

David Cook, the new commissioner of the Department of Community Health, told the joint House-Senate Appropriations panel that Medicaid needs a new eligibility system prior to the expansion of that program under federal health care reform. “We need to be ready for that,’’ Cook said. He cited a proposal for a state bond issue to fund a system that would improve those eligibility procedures.

In other highlights from the hearings:

Cook acknowledged problems in the state’s public health system, saying, “I agree we have a lot of work to do with public health.’’ Separately, a legislative commission has recommended that public health become a stand-alone agency for greater transparency and visibility. Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget plans significant reductions in public health funding.

Cook said DCH is looking into the issue of millions of dollars that managed care companies owe to public health for vaccines.

Responding to a question from Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus) about funding for primary care slots at Mercer University School of Medicine, Cook said he was ‘’deeply concerned’’ about physician shortages in the state. He also said he hoped the 1 percent Medicaid and PeachCare rate cut for doctors and other medical providers will not affect access to care. “Access is a critically important issue,’’ he said.

And Cook said Georgia would work to rebuild the financial reserves for the state employee health plan, which now stand at $17 million.

Dr. Frank Shelp, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, outlined how millions of new dollars will go toward building community services for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. The funding – required under the state’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice – will create crisis and support teams  for consumers, along with help for housing and employment.

Shelp said the state would contract with private hospitals to treat mentally ill patients after the planned closure of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome. That looming closure has raised concerns among consumer advocates and lawmakers in the Rome area.

Shelp said the state was not rigidly bound to the June 30 date to shut the Rome hospital. “We won’t close Rome prior to having other services in place,’’ he said.

But Sen. Johnny Grant said that when the state closed an adult mental health unit at Central State Hospital, the community services in the Milledgeville area were inadequate to serve consumers. “A year later, we still have problems with community services in Middle Georgia,’’ said Grant, a Milledgeville Republican.