Key health bills go down to wire at Capitol

The fate of legislation on medical marijuana, autism coverage and foster care reform was still up in the air by late afternoon Thursday, the last day of the 2014 Georgia General Assembly session.

The outcome of these and other health bills may not be settled until the final hours of the session Thursday night.

State. Rep. Allen Peake
Rep. Allen Peake

The medical marijuana bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. Allen Peake of Macon, has gone through multiple iterations over the course of the legislative session. The legislation would enable Georgians to use non-smokable, non-psychoactive derivatives of the drug without fear of state prosecution.

It would legalize the use in Georgia of marijuana derivatives, such as cannabidiol (CBD) oil, for medical purposes, including cancer, glaucoma and seizure disorders.

The bill also includes a provision, unrelated to medical marijuana, which mandates private insurance coverage of a type of autism treatment, called applied behavioral therapy, for children 6 years old and younger.

The Senate unanimously passed the combined medical marijuana and autism insurance coverage mandate at mid-afternoon. The vote sent the bill back to the House. 

Sen.  Renee Unterman (R-Buford), sponsor of the bill, said she expects the amended HB 885 to end up in a House-Senate conference committee based on the House’s potential opposition to the autism portion of the bill.

“This will go to conference,” Unterman said on the Senate floor. “It will go no further” without the autism mandate, she said.

Sen. Renee Unterman
Sen. Renee Unterman

Meanwhile, legislation to privatize foster care services in Georgia was also not resolved by midafternoon. And still pending was final agreement on a bill that calls for drug testing of some applicants for food stamps and welfare.

These bills were part of a horde of health care measures that largely dominated the 2014 session.

Among the most significant was legislation targeting the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation to require legislative approval for any expansion of the state’s Medicaid program — a step that is called for, but not compulsory, under the ACA.

Gov. Nathan Deal already has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, saying the state ultimately could not afford it, even though the federal government would fund the expansion 100 percent for three years and phase down to 90 percent.

The General Assembly also passed an anti-Obamacare measure that would restrict Georgia employees of any state unit from spending state funds to advocate for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provision, and would eventually halt the navigator program run by the University of Georgia, which helps Georgians use the federally run health insurance exchange. The legislation also would prevent the state from creating its own exchange.

The latest version of the medical marijuana bill grants immunity from prosecution in Georgia for possession of CBD oil obtained legally in a state that permits the use of medical marijuana. Twenty states have legalized medical use of marijuana and two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized medical and recreational

There is no restriction on what medical conditions could be treated. The only limitation is that the non-smoking derivative be obtained legally in a state that permits use of medical marijuana.

There still remains a catch. Transporting marijuana and its derivatives, medical or otherwise, across state lines is a federal crime. That means Georgia parents or adult patients would risk arrest by federal authorities if caught bringing CBD from another state, such as Colorado where the oil is manufactured.

The bill was inspired by the plight of children with intractable seizures whose condition is not helped by existing FDA approved medicines. For some of the youngsters, CBD oil is the only treatment that has provided relief, according to parents and physicians.

The bill’s language was vetted and approved by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia (PACG), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Sheriffs Association. Their expressed desire is to keep recreational marijuana illegal in Georgia while not hindering children in need of treatment.

The portion of the bill mandating autism insurance coverage includes a cap of $35,000 per patient on the annual cost of treatment.

In addition, employers and health maintenance organizations could opt out of the coverage if the resulting increase in premiums exceeds 1 percent. Companies with 10 or fewer employees would be exempt from the mandate.

Efforts to require insurers to cover applied behavioral therapy for autism have been ongoing in Georgia for five years, led by Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyon), whose
niece’s daughter suffered from the condition and was successfully treated with the therapy.