February 28, 2020

It has been a hectic week at the State Capitol with the legislature being in session all five days.  In addition, there have been numerous committee and subcommittee meetings and a joint session of the House and Senate to hear Chief Justice Harold Melton deliver Georgia’s State of the Judiciary speech on Wednesday.

Chief Justice Melton expressed appreciation for the new Deal Judicial Center that houses the Ga. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.  He spoke about the challenges to ensure all Georgians have access to justice and discussed a creative use of existing county law libraries by turning them into “self-help resource centers” for litigants who are representing themselves because they can’t afford an attorney.  He commended mandatory e-filing in State and Superior Courts and said the judiciary must continue to integrate and improve technology.  He also emphasized the need for cybersecurity.  Justice Melton trumpeted the accomplishments of Justice Benham and expressed appreciation for his years of service and upcoming retirement. He closed his speech observing that there has been a substantial increase in participants in Mental Health Courts and he noted that every $1 invested in Mental Health Courts saves the state $6.  He also emphasized the mental health needs of judges and lawyers and commended the State Bar law schools in dealing with these needs.

Budgets remain to be a major focus as Senate Appropriations committees continue their work on the mid-year budget, and the House Appropriations committees work on the budget for fiscal year 2021.  Earlier today, Sen. Hill announced Senate Appropriations will meet at 8:00 Monday morning to pass out the mid-year budget so it can be considered by the full Senate on Wednesday.

Two consumer protection healthcare bills passed the Senate unanimously. SB 352 was sponsored by Sen. Burke and it would address the situation where persons sign up for insurance after confirming that their doctors and medical facilities are in-network, then the insurance company subsequently drops these providers.  This bill states that if a provider is removed from an insured’s healthcare plan during the insured’s contract period, then the insurance company must continue to treat the provider as in-network for that patient for the duration of the contract.  Sen. Hufstetler sponsored SB 359 that deals with insured patients who use doctors and medical facilities in their insurance network but then get “surprise bills” from out-of-network doctors who also provided services.  In this situation, the patient would pay their usual co-pays or other charges, and the provider and insurance company would negotiate between themselves to come to an agreement on what the fee for service would be. If they cannot agree on an amount, they would go to binding arbitration. This bill also protects persons from out-of-network hospital charges in emergency situations by specifying that these persons would pay as they would for in-network hospitals then, again, the insurance company and provider would negotiate between themselves on the fees.

On Monday Senate Public Safety passed Sen. Robertson’s revised SB 226 which would require backseat passengers to wear seatbelts.  The revised bill removed the substantial fee increases and returned the fines to the current amounts of $15 for failure to wear a seatbelt and $25 for failure to use a seatbelt restraint on a minor between the ages of 8 and 17.

After many hours of testimony this week, the House Access to Quality Healthcare Committee passed a handful of bills this morning.  HB 888 is Rep. Hawkins’ legislation dealing with surprise medical bills that is identical to SB 359.  The remaining four bills that passed deal with pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers.  Rep. Knight authored HB 946 and HB 947, and Rep. Cooper authored HB 918 and HB 952.

The legislature will be in session Monday through Thursday next week.

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