During the 2020-2021 session of the Georgia Legislature, 1,020 new laws were passed from the 2,100 bills under consideration. Legislative action of interest to our clients centered on three areas: additional legal protections for the elderly and individuals with mental or physical impairment; access to telehealth, and additional accommodation for students with disabilities who are eligible for the HOPE scholarship.
The following summary highlights some of the key new laws that impact our clients and their families:
‘Abuse of Access’ Crimes Created
Georgia now recognizes the crime of “abuse of access” as a form of exploitation. “Abuse of access” involves illegal taking of any item of value, including cash, prescription drugs, and personal effects, by anyone with access to the physical environment of a senior citizen or person with a disability or impairment. Anyone convicted of abuse of access may face a fine of up to $50,000 and imprisonment of no less than one and no more than 20 years. HB 363; O.C.G.A. § 16-5-100(.01).
Advances in Behavioral Health Care
Attorneys who work in the guardianship field routinely express their frustration with Georgia’s mental health system. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the pandemic highlighted the inadequacy of our current system, and the legislature responded by introducing a number of bills on this topic. Under new legislation, licensed marriage and family therapists now have the ability to perform evaluations for involuntary treatment. HB 591; O.C.G.A. §37-3-41(d). Additionally, facilities receiving individuals to perform an emergency evaluation for involuntary commitment are now required to report to the legislature the source of the referrals and the number of individuals who were evaluated and who were actually admitted. HB 591; O.C.G.A. § 37-3-41(b). These reporting requirements should provide much needed information as to which resources provide the most accurate referrals of individuals needing involuntary mental health treatment and what part of the state has the greatest need for these resources.
What is more interesting than the legislation that passed is the proposed legislation that may be addressed again in the next session. The proposed legislation includes bills:
- To require insurance companies treat payment for mental health and substance abuse claims with the same parity as other medical and Medicaid claims (HB 49);
- To recognize Psychiatric Advance Directives, forward-looking documents that specify a person’s mental health preferences in the event such care is necessary (HB 752);
- To provide training for mental health operatives at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (HB 570); and
- To identify inmates who have mental illness or developmental disabilities and divert them to programs designed to address these problems (HB 678).
Legal Validation for Telehealth
Legislators took action to ensure that Georgia residents have access to telehealth and that insurance will cover these virtual appointments. Telehealth involves technology-enabled healthcare visits between patients and medical providers. Not surprisingly, the use of telehealth increased during the pandemic. Initially, people began using telehealth because they needed to see their doctors during the period of stay-in-place orders. After a while, many patients and physicians found the telehealth appointments to be convenient. Additionally, patients appreciated access to medical providers outside their immediate community. While nothing can replace an in-person visit with a medical provider, I believe that telehealth will continue to have an important role in providing healthcare.
The Georgia legislature appears to share this opinion, and the legislation enacted ensures that medical providers will get paid for conducting telehealth appointments. Under new legislation, third-party payers (insurance companies) cannot restrict the use of telehealth by refusing to pay for online-delivered services or by requiring physicians to use certain internet platforms. In areas where broadband capability is not available, insurance companies are required to pay providers for audio-only telehealth visits and consultations with mental health or behavioral health services. In-person visits with a physician cannot be required by an insurance company before receiving telehealth services except to set up the telehealth service (i.e., installing a device to facilitate the meetings). Additionally, the law treats intra-disciplinary health consultations conducted via telehealth in the same way it views in-person consultations between a patient and doctor and between and among healthcare practitioners. HB 307; O.C.G.A. § 33-24-56.4.
HOPE Scholarship Consideration for Students with Disabilities
Legislation expands accommodations available to students with disabilities to maintain access to the HOPE Scholarship. In general, students receiving the HOPE Scholarship have 10 years from the date of their high school graduation to complete their degrees or to have completed a certain number of credit hours. With the new act, a student with disabilities may apply for a waiver of that time limit. Waivers will be considered on an individual basis. SB 187; O.C.G.A. § 20-3-519.2(d)(3).
We continue to watch several pending pieces of promising legislation that affect our clients as the state prepares for the 2022-2023 legislative session, and we will update you on those as they are passed into law.
If you have any questions about these new laws or would like to know more about pertinent bills in review, please call us directly at (404) 969-5648.