COVID-19 policy priorities for a healthy Georgia
GHF's COVID-19 Policy Priorities
As Georgia faces the public health emergency of COVID-19, it can be hard to be optimistic about our health and our futures. However, Georgians for a Healthy Future believes that our state can successfully overcome this tremendous challenge if Georgians adhere to the advice of public health experts and our state’s leaders swiftly adopt evidence-based policies that protect the health and safety of all Georgians. At the same time, Georgia leaders must look ahead to ways they can promote the health and well-being of all Georgians in the economically challenging months to come.
Georgians for a Healthy Future has identified policy priorities that we believe are necessary for success in addressing the immediate public health emergency and the emerging economic consequences. These are the policies that we will fight for as we continue our fight for the health and wellness of all Georgians.
Our recommendations are shaped by feedback from GHF’s board of directors, partner advocacy organizations, local groups helping Georgians in their communities, and stories from Georgians just like you. You can share your COVID-19 experiences with GHF here. Thank you for your generous input.
As the status of this crisis changes and we gather more information, we will update these policy recommendations and continue to provide you with actionable information. Click on the section title to skip to the section of interest to you:
- Health system capacity and public safety
- Access to quality, affordable health care for all Georgians
- Equity at the center of the response
- Meeting the basic needs of Georgians and their families
Updated: December 18, 2020
Health system capacity and public safety
1. Statewide and local shelter-in-place orders and other aggressive social distancing practices to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus
1. Georgia’s statewide shelter in place ended on April 30, 2020 at 11:59pm for most Georgians.
Governor Kemp has again extended Georgia’s public health state of emergency through January 08, 2020. The Governor also issued executive orders requiring restaurants and other businesses to operate by strict social distancing and sanitation rules through May 31, 2020. As of June 1, 2020 restaurants are still required to abide by 39 restrictions to open their dining rooms
2. Funding to quickly expand the capacity of Georgia’s Department of Public Health to test and monitor the spread of COVID-19
2. Gov. Kemp has transferred $86.5 million from the Governor's Emergency Fund to cover the costs associated with the state's COVID-19 response. Details about how those funds will be specifically spent are not available. (Executive orders for transfers on March 20, March 30 and April 16, 2020.)
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) has announced that 66 COVID-19 testing sites are operational across the state. Testing sites can be located here.
COVID-19 testing is available for all Georgians, regardless of whether you have coronavirus symptoms. Anyone can call their local health department to get scheduled for testing. They can also download the Augusta University ExpressCare app, visit augustahealth.org, or call (706) 721-1852.
Effective May 7, 2020, COVID-19 testing is available to all Georgians who request it, whether they have symptoms or not. Call your local health department to schedule an appointment at a location near you and to inquire if testing is free.
3. Funding to purchase personal protective equipment for health care workers
4. Funding to purchase equipment for patient care like ventilators and respirators
5. Maximizing the scope of practice for all qualified and licensed health care providers (e.g. physicians assistants, advanced practice registered nurses, registered nurses)
5. No action has been taken to date.
6. Expanding options and health coverage of telehealth and virtual visits in all medically appropriate circumstances
6. Governor Kemp issued an Executive Order on March 20, 2020, to provide telemedicine licenses to out-of-state physicians to provide services.
On March 18, 2020, Georgia's Department of Community Health provided flexibility to health care providers that allows them to conduct telehealth visits for Medicaid members from more and different locations and allows telehealth appointments to take place by phone, video call (ex: FaceTime), or webcam (ex: through Zoom).
CMS approved the Medicaid Disaster Relief SPA allowing Medicaid payment for the following
- Services provided by telephone; and
- Psychotherapy services delivered via telecommunications systems by clinical psychologists and clinical social workers
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) received $2 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to implement the Georgia Emergency COVID-19 Project. The Project:
- Provides technology and video conferencing upgrades that will be implemented at Hope House, so that individuals whose preference is to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) can remotely connect to recovery support groups at Hope House;
- Expands the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network and Georgia Council on Substance Abuse peer warm lines to address increased call volume and the need for text/chat capability due to COVID-19; and
- Expands the COVID-19 Emotional Support Line (established on April 6, 2020) to provide 24/7 free and confidential assistance to callers needing emotional support or resource information as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic
Georgia's Insurance Commissioner asked health insurers on March 9, 2020 to review state laws regarding coverage of telehealth services and to prepare their telehealth programs for increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. The communication did not require insurers to take action or make specific changes.
Access to quality, affordable health care for all Georgians
State & federal actions:
1. Maximizing Medicaid flexibility and funding to increase access to care by:
a. Expanding Medicaid to all poor and near-poor Georgians (those making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line)
b. Taking advantage of emergency 1135 waivers to increase the number of providers who can see Georgians with Medicaid coverage
c. Adopting administrative changes to preserve coverage for current Medicaid members and to enroll Georgians who are already eligible but unenrolled, including the expansion of presumptive and retroactive eligibility and a halt on the annual renewal process
d. Expanding coverage of home- and community-based services and long-term services and supports
a. No action taken to date
b. On April 1, 2020, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved Georgia’s section 1135 waiver request, which temporarily grants the state a number of flexibilities for Medicaid and PeachCare during the COVID-19 public health emergency. This temporary waiver took effect March 1, 2020 and is set to end upon the termination of national public health emergency.
c. In an effort to support Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids enrollees, Georgia’s Department of Community Health (DCH) announced the suspension of the collection of all Medicaid copayments from May 1, 2020 until the end of the public health emergency.
Georgia recently received approval for its CHIP disaster state plan amendment (SPA). This allows the state to waive all premiums, premium balances, and copayments, and delay renewals for PeachCare members. Both will help keep children insured during the pandemic.
d. On April 10, 2020, CMS approved Georgia's Appendix K waiver request which allows for a number of flexibilities related to the home- and community-based care of Georgians who are covered by Medicaid programs like CCSP, SOURCE, ICWP, and NOW and COMP waivers. Full details of the Appendix K waiver and the approval are available here.
2. Expanding access and protections in comprehensive private health coverage by:
a. Promoting enrollment for people who qualify for private insurance, especially among those who are eligible for financial assistance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by:
- Establishing a new Special Enrollment Period for people who wish to purchase health insurance now
- Easing the enrollment and paperwork requirements for people enrolling in coverage due to job loss or income changes
- Prohibiting health insurers from canceling a consumer’s coverage, even if they fall behind on premium payments
b. Eliminating cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing (and related tests) and treatment
2a. Special Enrollment Period (SEP): Requires action by federal government. The Trump administration has so far stated it will not open a COVID-19 SEP.
Paperwork & enrollment requirements: Requires action by federal government. No action taken.
Prohibition on cancelling plans: Georgia’s Insurance Commissioner issued a directive on March 20, 2020, that instructed health insurers to refrain from canceling health policies due to non-payment of premiums. This protection expires on May 31, 2020.
2b. Under the Families First Act, testing for COVID-19 will be covered by Medicaid and CHIP health care plans with no cost-sharing. The Families First Act also requires that private health plans and insurers cover testing for COVID-19 with no cost-sharing. (A detailed summary of the Families First Act and its health-related provisions is available here.)
As of March 21, 2020 Cigna, Humana, Aetna, and UnitedHealthcare have waived cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment. Aetna and Cigna have pledged to waive COVID-19 treatment costs through qualified medical bills until June 1, 2020. Humana has not announced an end date to their COVID-19 cost-sharing policy.
3. Limiting the sale of plans that do not offer comprehensive benefits or follow the standards set by the ACA
3. No action taken to date
4. Establishing comprehensive surprise billing protections
4. No action taken to date
5. Promoting access to mental health services and substance use recovery supports for all Georgians
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) received $2 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to implement the Georgia Emergency COVID-19 Project.
- The Georgia Emergency COVID-19 Project:
- Provides crisis intervention services, mental and substance use disorder treatment, and other related recovery supports for children and adults impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Addresses the needs of individuals with serious mental illness, individuals with substance use disorders, and/or individuals with co-occurring serious mental illness and substance use disorders.
6. Easing limits on prescription drugs so that consumers can more easily access 90-day supplies of medications
Under the Governor’s March 20, 2020 Executive Order, Georgia pharmacists are allowed to dispense a 90-day supply of a prescription drug. This authorization can only be used once per prescription and does not apply to Schedule II controlled substances.
Equity at the center of the response
This pandemic has hit some Georgia communities harder than others. All federal and state policy remedies should endure to offer the most help to those who are disadvantaged due to income, race or ethnicity, disability or health status, age, geography, and other factors. Georgia’s response must proactively address health equity concerns. Among other strategies, this should include:
1. Data reports disaggregated by race & ethnicity, age, gender identity, disability status, and other demographic groups who may be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19
1. The Georgia Department of Public Health currently reports these COVID-19 outcomes by race & ethnicity or other demographic group in its daily report:
- Confirmed COVD-19 cases (by race & sex)
- Confirmed COVID-19 Cases Any Comorbidity (by race & sex)
- COVID-19 deaths (by race & ethnicity)
2. Disseminating public health messages that include information about affected groups and communities in languages and contexts they understand
2. On April 5, 2020, Gov. Kemp appointed members to the Coronavirus Task Force Community Outreach Committee.
3. Directing additional funding to community health centers and other providers that serve disproportionately impacted communities.
3. GHF and 36 other organizations signed on to a letter urging lawmakers to look at raising new revenue as opposed to cutting the budget, especially now when we know how important programs and services are in the battle against this pandemic as well as a critical part of a more equitable economic recovery.
Meeting the basic needs of Georgians and their families
As evidenced by recent job loss statistics, it is imperative that the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis be followed by an ambitious economic response. GHF supports policies that provide equitable opportunities for stability, dignity, and well-being for all Georgia families. While not an exhaustive list, these policies include:
State & federal actions:
1. Expanded access to Georgia’s unemployment insurance system, including 26 weeks of benefits and the easing of eligibility requirements and activities
1. Under the CARES Act the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was established which extends the duration of regular state unemployment insurance by 13 weeks.
2. A moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, the provision of rental assistance and mortgage forbearance, and other supports that keep Georgians in their homes
2. The Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court has extended the Statewide Judicial Emergency, which orders that courts only address essential functions until June 12, 2020, which can be interpreted to include evictions and foreclosures.
Reported on May 01, 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an order requiring that all landlords filing for an eviction also file an affidavit stating that the property is not covered by the CARES Act moratorium on evictions.
Fulton County housing court is planning to resume eviction hearings in June for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Improved access to nutritious foods through SNAP, WIC, school system food programs, and other public programs
3. Under the CARES Act:
- $900 million was allocated for food assistance programs, with $400 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and $500 million for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC);
- Work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/Food Stamps) have been temporarily suspended; and
- SNAP benefits are available to households with children impacted by school closures who typically receive free or reduced-price school meals.
Online EBT purchasing is expanding—SNAP participants can now order online and pick-up curbside at Walmart and Kroger.
The Atlanta City Council has adopted legislation that outlines a 60-day plan for serving the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness who seek shelter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The plan includes providing testing, protective wear, counseling, accommodation, and wraparound services.
4. Universal paid family leave that allows workers regardless of income to take time off to care for themselves and their loved ones in times of sickness and crisis
4. Under the Families First Act:
Employers with less than 500 employees are required to provide full-time employees with two weeks of emergency paid sick leave, in addition to any paid sick leave or paid time off already provided by the employer. Emergency paid sick leave is available for employees who have been advised to quarantine due to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms of the virus; in both of these cases, the sick leave would be paid at the normal rate. Emergency paid sick leave is also available for people who are caring for an individual who has been advised to quarantine or their child whose school or childcare facility has been closed due to the public health emergency. Under these circumstances, the employee will receive two-thirds of their normal pay in these cases.
5. A moratorium on utility shut offs, including internet access so that families can keep the lights on and children can continue to learn remotely
5. Several local and national utility companies are suspending cancellations. A list of those companies can be found here.
The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is working with a non-profit partner to provide connectivity in rural communities. Learn more here.
6. Other policies that protect essential workers and keep Georgia families & individuals stable and healthy
6. The HEROES/HEALS Act summary from Voices for Georgia's Children provides a breakdown and comparison between supports for children and families in the proposed HEALS Act and HEROES Act.
GHF will support partner organizations in their efforts to advocate for these policies and supports for Georgia families and individuals.