Georgia Senate lawmakers give final passage to bill to loosen health permit rules

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers on Thursday agreed on a plan to loosen some parts of the state’s health care permitting law.

The House and Senate gave final passage to House Bill 1339, sending it to Gov. Brian Kemp for his approval or veto.

The measure would allow the historically Black Morehouse School of Medicine to open a hospital in central Atlanta that could provide services once offered by the now-shuttered Atlanta Medical Center. It would also allow a hospital to open without a permit in any rural county where a prior hospital has been closed for more than 12 months. That could allow a hospital in the southwest Georgia town of Cuthbert that closed in 2020 to reopen.

Certificates of need, in place in Georgia since the 1970s, require someone who wants to build a health facility or offer new services to prove an expansion is needed. The permits are meant to prevent overspending that would increase health care costs. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Republican, has made it a priority to cut back or eliminate the rules, A standoff between Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns last year partly revolved around a plan to build a new hospital in Butts County, where Jones lives. The existing hospital there opposes the plan.

“For decades, CON laws have unfortunately represented a barrier to expanding quality healthcare,” Jones said in a statement Thursday “Today, we took a step towards reforming CON in Georgia and alleviating the roadblocks Georgians face in their efforts to receive accessible and quality healthcare.”

The House rejected some of the changes the Senate sought, such as allowing outpatient surgery centers to serve multiple medical specialties without a permit, and allowing new imaging centers to open without a permit.

House members agreed to let outpatient birthing centers open without permits. The bill would let new hospitals be built in counties with less than 50,000 residents, as long as they agree to provide a certain amount of charity care, join the statewide trauma system and provide psychiatric services. It also would remove dollar caps on how much existing hospitals can spend on buildings or equipment, as long as they’re not offering new services, and make it easier to transfer beds between campuses or move the hospital.

Jeff Amy covers Georgia politics and government.