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Health care reform bills clear 1st hurdle in Ga. Senate

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Georgia Capitol

Bills aimed at making the state's healthcare system more responsive and efficient passed out of committee Monday and are awaiting a vote of the full Senate.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said he expects them to clear the chamber this week.

Senate Bill 357, sponsored by Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, would create a Health Coordination and Innovation Council. The 18-member panel of agency heads, medical academics and private health care representatives would be tasked with coming up with new ways to stabilize costs while improving access to care.

SB 352, sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, would set up a director and a commission to address substance abuse, addiction and related disorders.

Hufstetler is a co-sponsor of both bills, which stem in part from hearings of the Health Care Reform Task Force he served on last year.

Unterman's bill would allow the state to seek Medicaid waivers, for the first time, to set up programs specifically targeting the opiod crisis.

"We're also trying to get more resources and money in the budget to address it, and mental health, because the two are connected," Hufstetler said. "A lot of people in our state don't even have access to treatment."

Making connections among all the state's health-related programs is the focus of the council in Burke's bill. The task force heard repeatedly from experts saying an individual needing services often has problems that overlap.

Seats on the Health Coordination and Innovation Council are assigned to the commissioners of community health, public health, human services, behavioral health and developmental disabilities and the director of health care policy and strategic planning.

The director of substance abuse, addiction and related disorders — created in Unterman's bill — also would have a seat. There also are ex officio slots for the commissioners of insurance, corrections, economic development and the attorney general.

With directions to base its policy decisions on hard evidence, Burke's council would rely heavily on a proposal that came out of the Joint Study Committee on Transparency and Open Access in Government, chaired by Hufstetler and Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome.

SB 184, sponsored by Hufstetler, would establish the Integrated Population Health Data Project and a governing board. The goal: build a centralized data warehouse to share information across state agencies.

"My bill is important in getting (Burke) the resources he needs to do the work," Hufstetler said.

The measure has been awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Hufstetler said the committee chairman has indicated support, "so I expect it to move shortly."