ATLANTA — Bruce Thompson has a personal stake in the topic of secondhand smoke.
Thompson, a Republican state senator from White, says he has suffered from asthma since childhood. His mother was a smoker, he says, and secondhand smoke is a strong trigger of asthma attacks.
Thompson is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 130, which would make it a misdemeanor to smoke, or allow smoking, in a motor vehicle if a child under age 15 is present. The Senate passed the legislation Friday by a 37-3 vote. It now moves to the House.
Friday was Crossover Day, the 30th day of the Georgia General Assembly session. It’s the deadline for a bill to be passed by at least one chamber of the Legislature. Otherwise, the bill loses its opportunity to become law this year, unless its provisions are attached to another bill that has passed a chamber.
Several health measures were in play during the day, including bills on medical marijuana, child welfare reform and the State Health Benefit Plan.
The Lung Association says secondhand smoke is responsible for at least 150,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year.
Thompson characterized his proposal as “a fight for those who are unable to fight for themselves.” Seven other states already have such laws, he added.
Earlier Friday, the Senate passed a bill that would set up clinical trials for medical marijuana for residents under 18 years old.
It stands in sharp contrast to the House’s broader medical cannabis bill, which would allow possession of the substance to treat several health conditions, including children’s seizure disorders.
The Senate bill was approved after the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Republican Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford, pledged to try to meld the legislation with the House version. She cited the Georgia families now living in Colorado – one of the few states where marijuana is largely legal – so their children can receive cannabis oil for treating seizure disorders.
“We want to bring home our medical refugees in Colorado,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “Our goal is to have a bill at the end of the session. Our end goal is to bring the refugees home.”
DFCS changes approved
The state Senate also overwhelmingly passed legislation that would create reforms in the child welfare system. The bill follows recommendations from Gov. Nathan Deal’s Child Welfare Reform Council.
The proposal would make the director of DFCS directly report to the governor. Senate Bill 138 also would create a state DFCS advisory board and a centralized child abuse registry.
DFCS has been an agency under pressure for a long time. The twin burdens of high caseloads and stagnant pay have led to low morale among its employees.
The fallout resulting from child deaths helped spark state hiring of more caseworkers and Deal’s creation of the council to review the child welfare system.
“The Child Welfare Reform bill will sustain the highest level of priority for children and families in care by putting DFCS under the direct oversight of the governor and an advisory board of professionals and community advocates,” said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children.
“Just as importantly, the newly created Child Abuse Registry offers greater opportunities for our service providers to avoid hiring someone who has been convicted of abuse or neglect. It’s a very important step toward the safest possible environments for children.
The Senate also passed Senate Bill 143, which would require the state employee and teacher health plan to include Georgia’s five Level 1 trauma centers as “in-network” facilities.
That would help Grady Health System, a trauma center in Atlanta that is now “out-of-network” for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia members due to a contract dispute.
Blue Cross is the main insurer in the State Health Benefit Plan. So the legislation would make Grady in-network for the plan’s 630,000 members.
Matthew Hicks, vice president of government relations at Grady, said after the vote: “We commend the Senate for taking action to ensure state employees always have access to the unique, lifesaving services offered at Georgia’s Level 1 Trauma Centers and for protecting their access to care even when there are disputes between hospitals and insurance companies.”
The House also approved some health-related bills Friday. These included a bill to create a single administrator for dental services for Medicaid and PeachCare members; and legislation that would prohibit health plans from restricting coverage for treatment of a terminal condition when such care has been prescribed by a physician as medically appropriate.
And the House passed a bill to beef up the state’s bullying law, extending it to cover threats made by means of computers or other electronics.