Public Health measure, in diminished form, clears Senate panel

A state Senate committee passed a much pared-down version of legislation that would have restructured the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

Senate Bill 256 went from 32 pages to two in its latest version, which received unanimous approval from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.

The original version would have taken authority from counties’ boards of health and given it to the DPH. It also would have loosened the required qualifications for a district health director, allowed the Public Health commissioner to redraw district maps, and overall would have concentrated more power in the commissioner’s office.

The new version is “a lot simpler,’’ and clarifies that the Public Health commissioner has the authority to appoint the district health directors, said state Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge).

Sen. Ben Watson (R-Savannah), the committee chairman, said the fiscal impact of a broad public health restructuring needed to be studied further. The state agency and Republican leaders, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, “are wholeheartedly in agreement’’ with the idea of a reorganization, he said.


ACCG, which represents county governments, had strongly opposed the previous version.

“Our members had grave concerns about the total authority of the county boards of health being removed,” Debra Nesbit of ACCG told the Senate panel Tuesday.  “We appreciate your taking this a little slower.’’

Several bills on health care are moving forward toward the Legislature’s Crossover Day, which is coming up Monday. That’s the deadline for a bill to gain passage by at least one chamber of the Legislature or lose its chance to become law this year.  (Such a dead bill can be revived if its provisions are attached to another bill that has passed a chamber.)

Bills moving this week – having already passed committees – include a House measure to allow patients’ legal representatives more visitation rights in hospitals and long-term care facilities during public health emergencies. (Here’s a GHN article on the measure).

House Bill 369 would allow advanced-practice registered nurses and physician assistants to write prescriptions for Schedule II controlled drugs, which include painkillers, in an emergency situation and for an amount not to exceed 5 days’ worth.

Measure on drug prices

Giving consumers a price break on prescription drugs is the focus of House Bill 164.

State Rep. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge) told a House committee Tuesday about his proposal to give consumers with individual insurance policies at least 80 percent of the rebate that the drug companies pay insurers or PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers).

A PBM is a corporate entity that basically serves as a middleman between health insurers or large employers and drugmakers in handling pharmaceutical benefits.

Typically, a Democrat-sponsored bill has little chance of moving in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but this one has Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, as a co-sponsor.

Douglas, at a Tuesday hearing of House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care, cited the effect of high drug prices on working families during the pandemic. People with diabetes pay steep costs for insulin, he added.

(Newer versions of insulin retail for between $175 and $300 a vial, Forbes reported recently. Most patients with diabetes need two to three vials per month, and some can require more.)

The legislation would apply to the more than 670,000 members of the State Health Benefit Plan, which covers state employees, teachers, other school personnel, retirees and dependents.

The Georgia Association of Health Plans, as well as a group representing pharmacy benefit managers, spoke in opposition to the bill. Jesse Weathington of the Health Plan group said that insurers use the rebates to lower the monthly premiums paid by members.

Zachary Poss of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, though, said patients could save up to $800 a year through the legislation.


Rep. Patty Bentley (D-Butler) said her family’s drug costs will go up in the wake of her husband’s COVID-19 infection. “He suffers some brain issues’’ and needs more medication, she told the panel. “This bill will help me save money at the pharmacy.’’

Dorothy Leone-Glasser of the Rx in Reach GA Coalition, a collaboration of consumer advocacy and medical groups, said the drugs that battle chronic diseases can cost more than $1,000 per month. “When you go to get your prescription drugs, particularly drugs that are cutting-edge, the sticker shock is enormous,’’ she said.

The committee did not take a vote on the measure.