Deal’s priority: Keeping doctors in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday that his proposed budget would fund 400 new residency training slots in hospitals across the state for graduates of Georgia medical schools.

Georgia taxpayers currently fund these young physicians’ education through medical school, ‘‘only to see them perform their residency outside of our state and not return,’’ Deal said in his State of the State address.

The new residency slots were among several health initiatives the Georgia governor outlined as priorities for 2012, his second year in office.

Fixing the doctor training gap is crucial for a state stuck in a physician shortage that shows no signs of easing.

Last year, three of every four graduates of Georgia medical schools went to do their residency training in other states. That’s a problem because the bulk of physicians end up practicing within 60 miles of where they did their training.

Primary care physicians are in particularly short supply in Georgia.

Another health initiative that Deal cited in his speech was the addition of $10 million in next year’s budget to establish more ‘‘accountability courts’’ in Georgia. These would include drug courts and mental health courts, created to help offenders avoid jail time through rigorous rehabilitation programs.

Deal said such courts are ‘‘cheaper and more effective’’ for low-risk offenders than the conventional criminal justice process. In a dramatic moment in his speech, he pointed to former cocaine and meth addict Sarah Gilleland, who was in the House gallery. It was through a drug court that Gilleland ‘‘began rebuilding her life’’ and beat her addiction, the governor said.

Her story ‘‘is playing out all across Georgia,’’ Deal added.

Hard times take toll on health

Deal also proposed $3.7 million in additional funding for more school nurses. Last year, school districts dealt with a reduction in state funding for school nurses. Georgia currently ranks close to the bottom for the ratio of students per nurses.

And the governor backed $5 million to help Georgia Health Sciences University become a national cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute, joining Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. That would help Georgians have access to ‘‘the newest and most promising therapies and clinical trials,’’ Deal said.

“Georgians deserve a world-class, public medical university, and it will be a priority of this administration to have a medical college among the top 50 nationally,’’ Deal added.

Much of the State of the State speech focused on job creation.

On Sunday, a poll conducted for the AJC and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership showed that 39 percent of registered Georgia voters believe the economy and job creation should be the top priority of the governor and the General Assembly.

Health care, though, was seen as the second-leading issue, at 14 percent. It beat out such hot topics as state taxes and spending (12 percent), education (10 percent), immigration (8 percent), and transportation (2 percent).

Even with apparent level of public concern, experts say there may be not much major legislation on health care this year, despite 20 percent of residents having no insurance, and despite funding needs in areas such as Medicaid and public health.

Health care and the jobs/economy issues are interwined in many ways, said Dr. Harry Heiman, director of health policy for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine, in a Monday interview.

“Poverty is a powerful predictor of health … and a powerful driver of health disparities,’’ Heiman said.

In addition, jobs provide health insurance for many people, and coverage is vital for good health, he noted. Studies have shown that people are six to seven times less likely to see a physician if they are uninsured or underinsured, Heiman said.

“People make decisions on utilizing health care based on the dollars in their pocket,’’ he said.

(The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this week that national spending on health care went up by only 3.9 percent in 2010, as the recession induced people to go to the doctor less.)

The tobacco tax option

One legislative health issue that continues to percolate is a proposed tobacco tax increase of $1 per pack of cigarettes.

The AJC/Georgia Newspaper Partnership poll found only 19 percent of statewide voters said they support adding sales taxes to groceries in exchange for an income tax cut. But 60 percent said they would support increasing the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack to pay for an income tax cut.

June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association, said the poll confirmed there’s wide support for the increase.

“We think it’s good public policy for Georgia,’’ Deen said. It would not only raise revenue for the state, but also discourage smoking, she said.

The newspaper poll’s findings were similar to a 2010 survey by Public Opinion Strategies, which found that 71 percent of likely Georgia voters favored the dollar hike.

Health advocacy groups such as the American Lung Association have advocated for the cigarette tax proposal for years.

Support for the tax hike has steadily grown, Deen said. “There may be more of a groundswell of support than even we thought.’’