Sen. Chuck Hufstetler declared near victory Thursday in state lawmakers’ efforts to address medical accessibility and coverage issues in Georgia this year.
“This was a huge year for healthcare ... About 90% of what I wanted to see happen happened,” the Republican chairman of the chamber’s finance committee told the Rome Rotary Club.
Hospitals will have greater leeway to expand and add services under legislation revising certificate-of-need requirements.
The CON battle had been raging for years between advocates for the Georgia Hospital Association and specialty operations including the national Cancer Treatment Centers of America chain.
“I’m a free-market person, but health care is not always a free market,” Hufstetler said in explaining the conflict. “There are some people who need to be treated for free and if someone just cherry-picked off the good business, that could leave (hospitals providing indigent care) vulnerable.”
A CON bill in the House failed to cross over to the Senate by the deadline, but he and a cadre of senators focusing on health care improvements tagged provisions to another bill that was still alive.
“Nothing was happening until they said ‘Let the Finance Committee take a run at it,’ and we did ... We got them together and brokered a compromise,” he said.
The major change boosts to $10 million the amount of money a hospital or clinic can spend on a new project without getting a CON. Another element limits the number of competing hospitals who can object to those within a 35-mile radius.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed the legislation, HB 186, Thursday — along with a slew of other healthcare legislation — at a ceremony at CTCA in Newnan. Hufstetler was among the lawmakers invited, but the Rotary Club engagement conflicted.
Kemp said the bills are part of a comprehensive overhaul of the existing health care system to eliminate the failures and prepare for the future.
The legislation “improves access, lowers the cost and increases the quality of care for countless of Georgians, no matter their zip code,” he said.
Hufstetler has served on a number of health care study committees in recent years and is a member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. He told Rotarians about several bills Kemp signed Thursday that he co-sponsored or worked on behind the scenes.
HB 287, which he carried in the Senate, provides tax credits for community-based faculty physicians and nurses who provide uncompensated training to medical students.
Hufstetler said many local professionals give their time to an internship program and he vetted the provisions through Dr. Leonard Reeves, dean of the Medical College of Georgia’s Northwest Georgia Clinical Campus in Rome.
He also hailed SB 16, which makes it easier for some specialists licensed in other states to get licensed in Georgia, and SB 18, which addresses direct primary care.
“If someone wants to contract with an independent physician — it’s usually around $50 a month — it’s not an insurance issue (anymore),” he said.
There also are new exceptions for step-therapy, “insurance companies forcing people to use a cheaper, inferior drug before they authorize the one that works,” he said.
A question about narrow networks, which refers to places where patients have limited options for in-network treatment, led Hufstetler to promise to keep pushing.
His legislation to limit balance billing that sticks patients — often in emergency situations — with the difference between in-network and out-of-network charges, met with resistance but remains alive.
“I was disappointed about that,” he said. “The out-of-network surprise billing legislation is sitting in the House for next session. I’ve been told by House members if (the committee chairman) would ever let it get to the floor it would pass. But he has, so far, blocked it.”
Rep. Richard H. Smith, R-Columbus, who chairs the House insurance committee, favors legislation requiring health care facilities to disclose out-of-network providers and their fees if a patient asks.
Hufstetler wants to take the patient out of the mix and provide incentives for the insurer and provider to work it out.