"These gaps really make it so that Georgians can't afford needed health care. If they receive health care, they're left with medical debt, or they have to make really tough…
This year, no Georgian has been left untouched by the health or economic impacts of COVID-19. The global pandemic has spotlighted the importance of public policy decisions that prioritize the health and wellness of populations, the consequences of underfunding government agencies (like departments of public health) and other essential public infrastructure, and the disparate impact that public policies have had on Black Americans and other people of color. National, state, and local leaders, many elected by the public, are responsible for the policy decisions made ahead of and in response to COVID-19, its economic fallout, and the movement for racial justice .
Ahead of election season (October to November 3, 2020), Georgians have the opportunity to learn more about these elected positions, the decision-making power each has, and how their impact on the health and the well-being of Georgians. This year, Georgians will cast their votes for the U.S. President, members of Congress, state legislators, state supreme court judges, and other positions. Voters’ decisions about the candidates in each race will have an unprecedented impact on consumers health issues in Georgia as we continue to battle through the current health crisis.
Georgia’s General Assembly
Georgia’s General Assembly is made up of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Georgia has one of the largest state legislatures in the nation with a total of 236 members, compromised of 56 Senators and 180 Representatives. Every Georgia resident has one Georgia Senator and one Georgia House member, both of whom are up for re-election every two years. All of Georgia’s state legislative seats are on the ballot this fall.
Georgia’s state budget
Constitutionally, the General Assembly is only responsible for proposing and passing an annual state budget; however, during the body’s annual 40-day session, legislators also propose, debate, and pass laws for the state of Georgia, including those that regulate health care, health coverage, or that impact health through another sector (like education, housing, or transportation).
All appropriations bills, which define how state money can be spent, must begin in the House. Each year, after the Governor proposes a state budget, the legislative leaders of the House turn the proposed budget into a bill for consideration by the House’s Appropriations committee and then by all House members. As the House considers the budget, it hears from leaders of state agencies, lobbyists for various interest groups, advocates like GHF, and from members of the public about how the state should spend its budget for the next year.
When the House has approved the budget, the budget goes through the same process in the Senate. Once approved by both chambers, any differences are worked out in a conference committee, before sending the budget back to the Governor to be approved or vetoed.
Due to the on-going coronavirus crisis, this year’s budget considerations by the General Assembly were influenced by falling state revenues. The General Assembly decided against finding new ways for Georgia to bring in money from increased tobacco taxes, taxes on insurance companies, and other revenue-generating ideas. Instead, the Georgia House and Senate passed a state budget that included $2.2 billion in budget cuts for the FY 2021 budget. The approved budget cuts will have negative consequences for critical health care programs and social services. For example, a $91 million reduction in funds to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities will make it more difficult for uninsured adults to find treatment for substance use disorders. The $8.2 million cut to the Department of Public Health will severely decrease programs that promote health care access in rural and underserved areas.
Members of the General Assembly may propose laws to address issues of concern for their constituents. These issues can range from surprise out-of-network medical billing to the opioid crisis to Medicaid expansion to maternal mortality. Many legislators receive ideas for legislation from concerns and complaints brought to them by their constituents (an important reason to get to know your legislators!).
Each year, hundreds of bills are proposed and only a fraction successfully pass both chambers. Health-related bills typically pass through the Health & Human Services and Insurance Committees in each chamber. Legislators can consider bills until Sine Die, the 40th and last day of the legislative session. When approved by both chambers, successful legislation goes to the Governor for approval or veto.
Two of the most impactful pieces of health-related legislation passed by the state legislature this year were HB 888, the Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act, and HB 1114, postpartum Medicaid coverage. HB 888 will ban surprise billing in emergency situations and for non-emergency health services when a consumer is at an in-network hospital or other facility, beginning January 1, 2021. HB 1114 will allow new mothers to receive Medicaid coverage for six months after giving birth. (Previously, new moms were covered for only 60 days after giving birth.) Both of these bills will improve health and well-being of Georgians. Oppositely, in 2019, the Georgia General Assembly passed HB 481, which would have outlawed most abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy. This law would have worsened Georgia’s maternal mortality crisis and was deemed illegal by a federal court.
This year’s election
Georgia’s General Assembly will have many new faces after the upcoming election, each of whom will play a role in shaping the state’s health care landscape over the next two years or more. Whether and how the state addresses issues like COVID-19, health care affordability, the opioid crisis, and the sustainability of the rural health care system may be decided by voters at the ballot box this November. Be sure you know the candidates for Georgia’s Senate and House on your ballot and how they plan to act on the health issues that are important to you.
This blog is part of a series from Georgians for a Healthy Future to educate consumers about the impact of the 2020 election on timely consumer health issues. Please be on the lookout for more blogs in this series.
*Georgians for a Healthy Future is a non-partisan, 501(c)3 organization. We do not endorse or support any candidates or political party.