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Hands-Free Law and others now in effect

The legislative session is over and done, and all that's left to do is obey the new laws, most of which took effect July 1.

While many of this year's new laws will have little or minor impact on Georgians' day-to-day lives, there is one big act that could have a drastic effect on highway safety.

Hands-free Georgia Act

As of July 1, it was illegal to hold a phone while driving.

The Governor's Office of Highway Safety's website has full details and answers to frequently asked questions about the new law, but the gist is:

Don't hold your phone while driving

For purposes of the law, driving is defined as any time the vehicle is not lawfully parked. So, no checking Facebook while stopped at a red light or watching cat videos while stuck in traffic.

More specifically, if you are using the phone:

As a phone, use voice commands to initiate and end calls. The law allows you to interact with your phone using speakerphone, earpiece, wireless headphones, or an electronic watch.

As a navigational device, attach with a mount.

For texting, use voice-to-text and text-to-voice features to compose and listen to text messages.

To listen to music, set the music (or music service) to run before starting your vehicle, then leave it in a mount, console, or other storage area while running.

Ultimately, the aim of the Hands-Free

Georgia Act is right there in the name: Your phone should not be in your hands when you're driving.

Never?

There is a general exception to the HandsFree Georgia Act for using your phone "while reporting a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, an actual or potential criminal or delinquent act, or road condition which causes an immediate and serious traffic or safety hazard."

But why?

Safety is a major concern and the driving force behind the HandsFree Georgia Act.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says 3,450 people were killed in distracted-driving incidents in 2016. The number includes drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

While the HandsFree Georgia Act aims to promote safer phone use by drivers, the best course of action is to not use your phone at all when driving. Research by the National Safety Council shows using hands-free devices to talk while driving is still dangerous.

Updates and amendments to existing laws

Every year the Georgia General Assembly tweaks and adjusts existing laws. Here are a few highlights from this year's session.

New rules for schools

No tuition for students placed in psychiatric treatment: HB 853/Act 382 amends the Quality Basic Education Act so that children placed in psychiatric residential treatment facilities pursuant to a physician's order may not be charged tuition.

Concerning "school climate": HB 763/Act 451 gives school attendance committees authority over "school climate." This means the committees will help promote learning growth, morale, community support, and attendance, "while decreasing student suspensions, expulsions, dropouts, and other negative aspects of the total school environment." The act also requires the coordinating of school safety plans with local law enforcement and juvenile courts.

Approved absences for children of active military: HB 718/Act 332 grants up to 5 excused absences per school year to any student whose parent or legal guardian is currently serving or previously served on active duty, provided the absence is to attend an event related to the parent or guardian's military service.

Moving during the school year? Keep your school: HB 852/Act 431 allows a student who moves to a new school attendance zone midyear to complete the year in the same school. The student can't have chronic disciplinary or attendance issues, and their parent or guardian must take responsibility for getting them to and from school.

Changes to local laws

Update to Fireworks Regulations: HB 419/Act 312 clarifies that the use of fireworks is subject to local noise ordinances and requires fireworks retailers to post a warning notice advising consumers to check local ordinances, use caution, and be considerate to neighbors. Also, the Governor now has the option to ban the use of fireworks in any area of Georgia that is under drought (as defined by a measure of 700 or higher on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index).

Ban on Banning Wood: HB 876/Act 466 prohibits local authorities from specifically banning wood as a construction material, provided its use meets all other code requirements.

Affecting public safety

Military firefighter training is acceptable: HB 699/Act 327 lets military firefighter training count as required basic training for firefighters.

New color scheme option for GSP cars: HB 809/Act 344 permits the Commissioner of Public Safety to allow the painting of Georgia State Patrol cars in a solid color. (The law previously required a two-tone color scheme. Note: that scheme was voted winner of the "Best Looking Cruiser Contest" sponsored by the American Association of State Troopers.)

New board member: HB 856/Act 383 adds the Commissioner of Community Supervision as an ex officio member of the Board of Public Safety, thereby increasing the size of the board from 15 to 16 members.

Miscellaneous

Regulating perinatal facilities: HB 909/Act 392 authorizes the Department of Public Health (DPH) to regulate facilities that provide care to newborn children and their mothers. DPH has until December 2019 to develop standards.

Extra plate for Gold Star families: HB 287/Act 307 amends the law pertaining to Gold Star Family license plates to allow 2 (rather than the previously allowed one) free license plates to any eligible family member of U.S. military killed in action.

Sexual harassment awareness for lobbyists: HB973/Act 493 requires registered lobbyists to acknowledge and accept the Georgia General Assembly Employee Sexual Harassment Policy.

Leeway to leave a lease: HB 834/Act 482 amends the law on residential leasing to allow a renter to terminate a lease with 30 days notice if a civil family violence order or criminal family violence order has been issued.

The General Assembly voted; now it's your turn

Most of the time the General Assembly creates a law and that's it; it applies and we follow it. Other times, however, our lawmakers pass decisions on to the people of Georgia, either as a whole or within our individual communities.

Each of the acts below requires approval by voters before taking effect. In cases where the new law would apply only within a certain municipality, be sure to keep an eye on local government meetings to find out when (or even if) the issue will be placed on an upcoming ballot.

Earlier alcohol sales on Sunday: SB 17/Act 461 — which carried the legislative nickname "the brunch bill" — authorizes local votes to allow sales of alcoholic beverages starting at 11 a.m. on Sundays. (Current law prohibits such sales until 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, in jurisdictions that have opted to allow Sunday sales at all.)

Land conservation: HB 332/Act 415, dubbed the "Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act," calls for a statewide referendum on the November general election ballot. If passed, the referendum would create the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to support parks, trails, and land conservation, funded by allocation of sales and use tax proceeds from sporting goods stores.

Taxes for Atlanta transit: HB 930/Act 405 allows each of 13 metro Atlanta counties the option to hold a referendum to impose a sales tax to fund additional transit. (The act also has another effect; see below.)

New governing bodies

The General Assembly can't be everywhere and control everything, so it creates authorities, boards, and other intermediate governing bodies to oversee particular areas of law, certain parts of the state, or sometimes both.

A few new ones were created this year.

Benefitting veterans: HB 422/Act 313 authorizes the Veterans Service Board to create the Georgia Veterans Service Foundation, Inc. The foundation would be a 501(c)(3) non-profit to solicit and collect funds to benefit Georgia's veterans.

In related action, SR 484 created the Senate Study Committee on Creating a Lottery Game to Benefit Veterans. Sen. Ed Harbison will chair the 5-person committee, which is tasked to "look at the possibility of creating one or more games within the Georgia Lottery for the benefit of Georgia's military veterans." The committee has until December 1, 2018 to report its findings.

Atlanta transit: HB 930/Act 405 creates the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority to oversee transit development.

Rural prosperity: HB 951/Act 300 creates the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation and the Georgia Rural Development Council. The center will be located within a to-be-determined University System of Georgia institution, and will assume the business and responsibilities of the Centers of Innovation Agribusiness. The Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture will collaborate with the center.

Employment for individuals with disabilities: HB 931/Act 455 creates the Employment First Georgia Council to help create an "Employment First Policy" as it relates to state-funded employment services provided to people with disabilities. The council of 14 will bring together leaders and experts in both the public and private sector, including people who experience disabilities first-hand.

Jon Suggs is the Content Strategist for Digital Services Georgia. He writes on a variety of topics for Georgia.gov.


Full-service cancer care returns to NW Georgia
CHI Memorial is upgrading and reopening Parkway facility in Ringgold.

Larry Schumacher

Dr. Ted Arrowsmith

Sen. Jeff Mullis

Since assuming management of the former Hutcheson/Cornerstone hospital's facilities last December, CHI Memorial ceaselessly has worked toward revitalizing Northwest Georgia's regional hospital.

The main campus in Fort Oglethorpe has maintained fully-supported emergency room services, upgraded the facility and soon should reopen its surgery center.

Standalone clinics in Trenton, Chickamauga and LaFayette have become "go to" providers for primary care in their respective municipalities.

CHI Memorial-Parkway (formerly Hutcheson on the Parkway) has become home to CHI Memorial Family Practice Associates-Ringgold, CHI Memorial Pediatric Diagnostic Associates and The Chattanooga Heart Institute.

Now another chapter in the story of CHI-Memorial moving into Northwest Georgia is being written.

On Monday, June 25, Georgia's Department of Community Health announced its approval of CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia's certificate of need application to provide full-service cancer services with new equipment at CHI Memorial-Parkway in Ringgold.

The next day, physicians and politicians — as well as CHI employees and administrators, along with members of the public — gathered to celebrate being approved to operate the former Fuller Cancer Center and describe how it benefits the community.

"It was obvious from the beginning that there was a need," said Larry Schumacher, CHI Memorial CEO and senior vice president of operations, Southeast Division, Catholic Health Initiatives.

Providing full-service cancer care is part of the initiative CHI Memorial began several years ago to expand the availability of quality healthcare. That process began several years ago when a federal judge allowed the sale of bankrupt

Hutcheson Medical Center's clinics to local governments who in turn leased those facilities and their management to CHI.

That process advanced with the acquisition of the Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold campuses.

"Our mission is to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ," said Andrew McGill, senior vice president of strategy and business development for CHI. "Each and every day, we care for each individual."

Catoosa County Board of Commissioners Chairman Steven Henry recalled how when he was 18 — 28 years ago — he and his brother were tasked with ferrying their father, who died of cancer, back and forth to Chattanooga for his treatment.

"Our goal, mine and all the commissioners, is to get quality health care back in Catoosa County and all of North Georgia," he said.

Now, as June draws to a close, it seems that the Rees Skillern Cancer Institute-

Parkway will occupy the former Fuller Cancer Center at 4750 Battlefield Parkway. And, it is hoped, soon shall offer world-class services.

"This will really change the lives of my friends and neighbors," said Dr. Ted Arrowsmith. "CHI has a mission of compassion and excellence."

A physician with Tennessee Oncology, one of the nation's largest community-based cancer care specialists, Arrowsmith lives in Flintstone and has practiced medicine in Northwest Georgia for 18 years.

Treatment of cancer is different from nearly any other medical specialty, he said. Unlike surgery, it is something that can require treatment over an extended period of time. For those undergoing radiation therapies, daily treatments might be necessary for a period of several weeks. Other patients might face a treatment regime that requires monthly chemotherapy treatments over the course of years.

Curative care can vary broadly, Arrowsmith said, but something seemingly as insignificant as reducing the time spent traveling from home to their doctor's office or treatment facility can be of immeasurable benefit for a cancer victim.

"It might be shortterm but of significant importance to minimize the disruption of their lives," he said.

And it is not only for those who undergo treatment that can make them feel worse rather than better after a round of radiation or infusion. Having a full-service facility near where they live allows even terminal patients the opportunity of spending every moment possible with those they love — and not trying to find a way to travel to a nearby city for treatment.

"That time saved can be life-saving," the doctor said.

Arrowsmith said the "radiation equipment will be the best in the region," and, of equal importance, the Rees Skillern Cancer Institute technical and medical staff are second to none.

Officials said they are prepared to upgrade the facility's linear accelerator to provide full-service cancer services as early as September.

"Government goes slow," Henry said, "Government and medical together goes even slower. I hope that in 30 days we'll be able to move forward."

Schumacher said the only thing that could delay this start is an appeal of the June 25 decision by Erlanger Health System.

Erlanger's application for building a new cancer center in Ringgold was opposed by Catoosa County's elected officials and denied by the Georgia Department of Community Health.

But Erlanger can appeal the certificate of need that was granted to CHI, and, Schumacher said, "Only Erlanger can delay the community's cancer care by trying to block CHI Memorial from providing care to the people of North Georgia."

Access to radiation oncology at CHI Memorial-Parkway could be delayed by two years or more as the issue is resolved through the legal process, he said, meaning hundreds of people will be denied access to life-saving care close to home.

"Erlanger had its opportunity to invest in radiation oncology services over the three years it managed Hutcheson Medical Center, yet failed to do so," Schumacher said. "It also owned the land for its proposed cancer center for 10 years, but again failed to take steps to create a cancer center."

Arrowsmith said that each year, more than 500 individuals must travel away from this Georgia region to receive cancer treatments, something that is a burden on them, their families and friends.

"People should not have to travel great distances to obtain life-saving radiation therapy," he said. "Extensive travel for treatment can be exhausting for the individual and challenging for family members who are there to help."

CHI officials noted a need and dedicated themselves to helping advance their mission of providing compassionate care for the sick and dying. Having done that, Schumacher said the public can contribute that goal's realization.

"We need your voice," he said. "We need you to take action today."

That action involves going online at CHIMemorialNOW.org to sign a petition that supports opening a cancer care center — now — in Northwest Georgia.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis was introduced as a significant supporter of CHI's presence in the region and its initiative to bring cancer care closer to his home.

"I'm grateful you're expanding," Mullis said. "This is so important to this community — medically, economically, socially — thank you and God bless you."

If you support CHI Memorial providing full-service cancer care at CHI Memorial-Parkway, visit CHIMemorialNOW.org to sign an online petition that supports opening this cancer care center without delays.


Freedom From Religion Foundation lodges another complaint against school system

Denia Reese

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made its displeasure with Catoosa County Schools known again.

"A concerned parent has reported that the 2018 Ringgold High School graduation ceremony, which took place at the school on Friday, May 25, began with a prayer," reads the June 22 letter from FFRF lawyer Christopher Line.

"We've written to you regarding constitutional violations occurring in CCPS several times over the past couple of years without receiving a response," Line wrote in his letter, "including a July 21, 2017 letter regarding a religious fundraiser and crosses and a September 29, 2017 letter regarding a religious club at Ringgold Elementary School."

The letter goes on to cite several past court decisions that support FFRF's stance and says that by scheduling prayers at graduation, "the District abridges its duty" to remain neutral and "alienates the 38% of younger Americans who are not religious."

FFRF, which is a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wisc., maintains that "government prayers" are not only unconstitutional but "unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly."

Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese says the school system's attorney is looking into the matter.