Health professionals warn against Kemp plan

The bill is more than 800 pages long. It was introduced just days before the early March “Crossover Day,” when a bill must have passed one legislative chamber to have a shot at ultimate approval.

But those impediments did not diminish interest in Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s proposal to restructure the state boards that license tens of thousands of Georgia professionals, including those in several health care professions.

Senate Bill 445 drew a packed hearing room at the state Capitol on Tuesday, as the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee met to consider the licensing legislation.

The debate appeared to center on a fundamental question: Should professionals such as nurses be disciplined and overseen by a board of their peers, or by an independent, seven-member consumer board, as Kemp is proposing?

Kemp explained the legislation as an attempt to redirect the resources in his office — which has taken a 17 percent funding cut over the past four years — and streamline procedures of 43 professional licensing boards. The bill is so long because of heavy cross-referencing to various other laws, he explained.

The bill would create a new position, director of professional licensing, and establish the seven-member consumer board that would decide disciplinary action for all the professions. The current professional boards would still exist but would focus on policy.

A restructuring, Kemp said, would reduce wait times for routine licensing and make the process more efficient. Last year, he said, his office fielded 58,000 calls from applicants asking about the status of their licenses.

Despite Kemp’s strong pitch, his proposal drew unanimous opposition from representatives of health care associations and licensing boards who testified at Tuesday’s hearing. Most stressed patient safety in their arguments against changing the system.

The Georgia Nurses Association said the Board of Nursing’s efficiency has shown significant improvement recently. “We’re not clear that the total restructuring of the board is needed,’’ said Debbie Hatmaker of GNA.

The nurses’ organization says license revocation, discipline and complaints are best regulated by those who are professionally educated to interpret the complexities of health care.

Kathy Mann of the Board of Nursing, which oversees more than 110,000 RNs in the state, testified that patient safety ‘’takes precedence over the effort just to speed up applications.’’

Aubrey Villines, a lobbyist representing chiropractors, optometrists, and marriage and family therapists, said a similar licensing restructuring in Texas excluded health care professionals.

“You must have professionals sitting in judgment of professionals,’’ he said. “The primary purpose of licensure is to protect the public.’’

Bill Buchanan of the Georgia Psychological Association also backed the status quo, noting that a psychologist must provide a work sample and an oral exam for licensure. The leading complaint about psychologists involves their performance in child custody evaluations, he added. The expertise of psychologists is needed to do the monitoring of that work, Buchanan said.

“Streamlining government is music to my ears,’’ he said. “But I don’t think this is the way to do it.’’

Bill Prather, president of the Georgia Board of Pharmacy, said pharmacists are primarily concerned with the health and safety of Georgia citizens. He warned that the restructuring would take pharmacists’ expertise “and throw it out the window.’’

Georgia physicians currently have a board that is independent from the secretary of state’s office, so the proposal would not affect them. And the board overseeing dentists would not be included in the overhaul, but at Gov. Nathan Deal’s request would move to the Department of Community Health, Kemp said.

Current licensing board members are professionals appointed by the governor. They set policies and standards and hear complaints and determine fines, suspensions or license revocations, noted Christopher Quinn in a Tuesday AJC article. There is one consumer member per board.

Kemp said the licensing overhaul would save money through fewer board meetings and would lead to quicker enforcement against violators. His staff is already doing much of the licensing work, Kemp said. The budget cuts, he noted, have shrunk the secretary of state’s staff, while staffers’ workload has increased.

“The industry shouldn’t regulate itself,’’ Kemp testified, adding, “There is no reason an applicant should wait months’’ for a license. No standards of care would be changed under the proposed new system, he said.

Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus) concluded the hearing by declaring that budget cuts have “slashed and burned’’ the secretary of state’s office. “He has inherited a very difficult position,’’ with an office that is drowning in paperwork, Hooks said of Kemp.