Hospital fee bill clears another big hurdle

After a series of friendly questions and statements of support, the fast-tracked legislation on a state hospital provider fee swept through a House committee Tuesday.

The House Government Affairs Committee, by a 15-1 vote, approved Senate Bill 24, which would facilitate the renewal of the assessment. The state Senate passed the bill earlier this month.

The legislation could reach the House floor Thursday or Friday. If it passes, it then would go to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature — an unusually rapid journey into law.

Deal’s support for the provider fee bill was evident at the committee hearing Tuesday when two of his floor leaders — Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) and Rep. Matt Hatchett (R-Dublin) — came to testify for it.

The proposal would transfer decisions on the assessment from the Legislature to the state’s Medicaid agency, the Department of Community Health. The current assessment is due to expire at the end of June.

Passage of the measure in both chambers would allow the fee to remain in effect without Republicans having to vote directly to renew it.

Anti-tax activists, including the nationally known Grover Norquist, have called for abolition of the fee, which many of them call a “bed tax.’’ But if the fee ceased to exist, the state Medicaid program would have a financial hole of more than $400 million to fill, beyond the agency’s current shortfall. State leaders don’t want that to happen.

Bethel and Hatchett emphasized that moving the fee to Community Health would give the state more flexibility in reacting to sudden fluctuations in federal funding for Medicaid.

Community Health, though it would have authority over the fee, would not be able to increase it above a figure that the Legislature sets as a ceiling, Bethel said.

The fee is the best option available to fill in a huge hole in Medicaid, Bethel said.

Representatives of the hospital industry testified in favor of the proposal, from the Georgia Hospital Association, HomeTown Health and the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, to representatives of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Grady Memorial Hospital, and Memorial Health in Savannah.

The consequences of not passing the legislation ‘‘would be catastrophic’’ for rural health care in Georgia, said Lewis of HomeTown Health, an organization of more than 50 rural hospitals.

The only dissenting committee vote came from Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem).