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Georgia Senate panel defeats rural health-care tax-credit bill
State Rep Geoff Duncan
State Rep. Geoff Duncan is the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor.

ATLANTA — A Senate health committee Monday unexpectedly rejected a bill that would allow an individual or corporation to get a state tax credit for donating money to a rural health-care organization.

The sponsor, Rep. Geoff Duncan, R-Cumming, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee before its vote that rural health care in Georgia is “at crisis level.’’ He said the proposal would potentially help 39 rural hospitals that fit the criteria listed in House Bill 919.

“Through this, we’ve created a national conversation, where other states are looking at this,’’ Duncan said.

But the committee vote was 7-4 against his proposal, which would have made $100 million in tax credits available every year.

“I’m disappointed not for myself, but the folks in rural Georgia,’’ Duncan told Georgia Health News after the vote. He said many people in the state’s rural counties “are wondering if their (local) hospital will be open in the morning.”

Democrats argued that expanding Medicaid eligibility, through federal matching funds, would be a better way of bringing more money into the rural health system.

“It seems like a no-brainer,’’ said state Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker.

But the Republican-dominated General Assembly has opposed Medicaid expansion for years.
House Bill 919 was among the health-care bills that did not move forward Monday, as the Legislature headed into the final days of the 2016 session.

Two other high-profile proposals did not get hearings in the committee Monday, and they appear dead for the year.

One of these stalled proposals would have expanded the list of medical conditions that can be treated with cannabis oil. It was only last year that the state approved the use of the marijuana derivative for several medical conditions. The new proposal would have added post-traumatic stress disorder and HIV/AIDS.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, chairwoman of the committee, said Monday that there was not enough time this session to deal with the proposed change to the cannabis bill because of the dozens of other health-related bills being sent to her panel from the Georgia House.

Earlier, this year, the House defeated a proposal to allow cultivation of medical marijuana in Georgia.

Hot-button issues

The other bill that Unterman said would not get a hearing in the HHS committee would have tightened rules on the prompt transfer of sexual assault evidence to the state’s forensics labs.

House Bill 827 would have launched a statewide count of so-called “rape kits” — containers of untested biological evidence in sexual assault cases — so that agencies could find money to test them. It also would have required investigators to pick up such evidence from hospitals and other facilities within 96 hours after it was collected, and transfer it to Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic labs within 30 days.

The legislation was written to address complaints that rape kits were being left untested despite their vital importance in solving and prosecuting sex crimes.

Unterman, though, said the backlog on rape kits already “is being taken care of” by state authorities without the need for new legislation.

“The GBI is working with all the hospitals in Georgia,” she said. “The backlog is going away.”

“The biggest problem was Grady Hospital,’’ and that situation is being resolved, Unterman said.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year found that 1,500 rape kits had piled up at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, in part because the hospital failed to report many of the alleged crimes to police.

The rural hospital tax credit bill split Republican members of the HHS committee, while all Democrats on the panel voted against it.

Duncan said he was not going to give up on pushing help for rural hospitals.

“I can help expecting mothers get the prenatal care they deserve to have,” he said.

Jimmy Lewis, the CEO of HomeTown Health, an association of rural hospitals, said after the vote that “it’s a tragic loss for rural hospitals and rural health care in Georgia.”

Rural hospitals will end up closing as a result of the committee vote, he added.

Earlier Monday, the state Senate unanimously passed legislation to allow savings accounts for people with disabilities to help them live independently and not lose their Medicaid health insurance or Supplemental Security Income benefits. The savings could pay for qualified expenses such as housing, transportation, education and personal support services.

Currently, these disabled individuals can have only $2,000 in assets in order to retain Medicaid and SSI.

Retaining Medicaid coverage is vital for people with disabilities. The ABLE Act could help an estimated 77,000 Georgians, proponents say.

In one of Monday’s surprises under the Gold Dome, the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee took no action on a proposal that would have established a 5 percent minimum commission when insurance agents sell health coverage to small businesses. The bill also would have set a 4 percent minimum commission for individual health-benefit plans.

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