Gov. Nathan Deal has held signing ceremonies across the state in recent days for a variety of bills passed by the General Assembly. But...

Gov. Nathan Deal has held signing ceremonies across the state in recent days for a variety of bills passed by the General Assembly.

Rep. Tommy Benton

Rep. Tommy Benton

But one bill that passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature may not get a ceremony — or a signature. In fact, it’s expected to get a veto.

House Bill 86 would move the current Division of Aging Services out of the Department of Human Services and create a new state agency. The proposed Adult and Aging Services Agency would be attached to the Department of Community Health, the state agency that also handles Medicaid.

The votes in the Senate and House were 45-1 and 160-3, respectively.

But state Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson), the lead sponsor of HB 86, told GHN on Thursday that he “is in the dark’’ about the legislation’s fate.

“The governor’s office has not contacted me’’ about HB 86, Benton said. “I’ve heard in a roundabout way that it would be vetoed.”

Health care experts who spoke to GHN on condition of anonymity said they expect Deal to veto the legislation.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal, said in an email that the governor will announce veto decisions on Tuesday. Robinson did not comment on the fate of the Aging Services legislation.

Speculation on reasons for a veto have centered on the potential budgetary impact of the bill. Yet James Bulot, the director of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services, testified at a House hearing in February that it appeared that creating a new agency would be revenue-neutral for the state.

Other possible reasons cited for a veto include the Deal administration seeking to focus on child welfare changes in the Department of  Human Services. Another potential reason mentioned involves political payback — specifically, because Rep. Benton opposed Deal-supported legislation to create “Opportunity School Districts” to turn around failing schools in Georgia.

An increasingly important issue

Proponents of the Aging Services Agency legislation have noted that Georgia is in the middle of an “aging boom.” People are living longer, so there are more older people.

More than 1 million Georgians — or roughly 1 out of 10 people in the state — are 65 or older. And over the next 30 years, Georgia is facing an estimated 143 percent increase in its senior population.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal

“We are getting older, and there are some things that need to be done’’ for this population, Benton said in February when testifying for the bill before the House Human Relations and Aging committee.

After testifying at the hearing, Benton said the bill could give services for seniors more visibility and funding.

Previously, the Department of Human Services (and its predecessor agency) had housed public health and behavioral health divisions for the state. But beginning in 2009, state lawmakers passed bills that broke off both those units and turned each into an individual department.

If House Bill 86 were to be signed, Human Services would be left to focus on children.

Vicki Johnson, legislative chairwoman for the Georgia Council on Aging, told the House panel in February that Human Services is already putting priority on the welfare of children, so older people need a department of their own. “We think the needs of seniors are quite different from the needs of children,” she said.

The Council on Aging said at the hearing that creating a new agency for seniors would make the contracting process quicker, and provide more transparency for the unit’s budget.

The state’s plan for dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia would have a better focus, Kathy Simpson of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Georgia chapter told lawmakers.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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