Capitol Recap: Georgia patients face delays in getting medical marijuana cards

Georgia’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in April in Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Pooler, and the state says the number of registered patients and caregivers who can buy the drug has increased since then by about 6,000 to a total of nearly 52,000. Some patients are waiting months to get the physician-approved IDs from the state that they need to buy the drug legally. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in April in Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Pooler, and the state says the number of registered patients and caregivers who can buy the drug has increased since then by about 6,000 to a total of nearly 52,000. Some patients are waiting months to get the physician-approved IDs from the state that they need to buy the drug legally. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Demand increased for physician-approved IDs after opening of dispensaries

After gaining permission to treat their particular illnesses and conditions with marijuana, Georgia patients waited eight years for the state to provide a way for them to legally obtain it.

Now, some of those patients are waiting again, this time for months to receive a physician-approved ID card.

Without it, they cannot legally purchase the cannabis oil —which can contain no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high — to treat several illnesses including seizures, terminal cancer, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Georgia’s first dispensaries opened in April in Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Pooler, and the state says the number of registered patients and caregivers who can buy the drug has increased since then by about 6,000 to a total of nearly 52,000.

That has helped create a backlog of pending applications for low THC oil cards that earlier this month numbered at 558. Many of them were awaiting patient verification of their IDs and addresses.

Kim Skriba of Auburn, who uses the cannabis oil to treat her 24-year-old son Ryan for seizures, applied for the card in April and only received it this past week. She said the government initially canceled her card because a representative couldn’t reach her by phone.

“I’ve been trying to skimp on it so that it would last. We’ve had a little bit of an increase in seizures, so that’s awful,” Skriba said. “Life with a special needs child or adult is not easy. When the state makes things harder for you, it just adds difficulty and stress to the whole situation.”

The state Department of Public Health has taken several steps to help clear the backlog. It recently added a call center, and the number of county health offices where patients can pick up their cards has grown from 18 to 42. The DPH has also started shipping the cards for overnight delivery to county health offices to speed up the distribution to patients and caregivers.

“We had to make it much more convenient for the public to have access to pick up these cards,” said Dr. Chris Rustin, interim director of health protection at the DPH. “These improvements will certainly help us improve the process and issue these cards quicker for the public that needs it.”

The call center has made an impact, Rustin said. The number of weekly calls has decreased to about 200 from a peak of 1,000, he said.

Skriba said the DPH should mail low THC oil cards to patients instead of requiring them to visit an office, but Rustin said the state needs to protect patients’ medical information and ensure that cards are only given to authorized individuals.

The department currently issues cards within four or five days if all information is provided and verified, Rustin said. At the height of this summer’s surge in applications, it took twice as long to process cards.

Patients and caregivers can check the status of their applications for low THC oil cards online through the Department of Public Health’s website.

Kids bear the brunt in June as Georgia trims Medicaid rolls

Children up to age 18 made up 71% of 96,000 Georgia residents who lost their Medicaid coverage in June.

As part of an effort to cull enrollees who no longer qualify now that an end has been declared to the coronavirus pandemic federal emergency, Georgia canceled the Medicaid health insurance of more than 67,000 children and teens in June, according to state data. That included 63,000 who were dropped because the state found their parents or guardians had not filed the necessary application.

Medicaid is the government-funded health insurance program for poor children and some poor Georgia adults who are elderly, federally declared disabled, or meet certain work and activity requirements. During the pandemic federal emergency, recipients were able to stay on Medicaid without having to reapply annually. That ended this spring.

Georgia, like all other states, is now reexamining its Medicaid enrollees to ensure all 2.8 million enrolled in the state’s program are still eligible. But the data shows that the vast majority of those being dropped from Medicaid might still qualify.

The number of children cut because of red tape was first reported by The Georgia Recorder.

Advocates for children fear that those who lost coverage have parents or guardians who didn’t realize they needed to reapply.

Jack Grote, a senior staff attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, said he is concerned families will not learn they’ve lost coverage until they go to doctors’ offices and are turned away.

“Frankly, the thing that I’m most concerned about is how little I’m hearing,” Grote said. “Considering the numbers that we’re seeing, I think myself and a lot of other advocates around the state were expecting an avalanche of calls. ... That makes me very concerned that a lot of these people probably don’t even know that they were kicked off Medicaid. They probably never got the notice in the mail.”

The lack of paperwork was cited in 94% of the cases where children were dropped.

Dr. Anu Sheth, a Lawrenceville pediatrician and member of the executive board of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said many factors can contribute to paperwork problems. Children in low-income households are more likely to change addresses or custody or even their names. The people responsible for making sure they’re on Medicaid may be disengaged or overwhelmed.

State officials say they’re doing all they can to contact families. They’ve sent letters, emails and text messages. They’ve also tried advertising in English and Spanish, and they’ve gone to community meetings and back-to-school events.

In all cases, the state first attempts to reenroll people without having to make contact, using information from its databases.

If it can’t do that, and people don’t respond to the state’s warning notices and refile their application, they lose their coverage.

Kemp will press for tort legislation in General Assembly’s next session

Gov. Brian Kemp told business leaders this past week that he will push for tort legislation during the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Kemp said he wants to overhaul regulations guiding plaintiffs’ litigation to reduce insurance premiums and curb “frivolous lawsuits.”

The governor, speaking at an annual Georgia Chamber event, didn’t give any specifics beyond saying any overhaul must reduce insurance premiums, “level the playing field in our courtrooms” and help generate new jobs. The details will be left up to legislators.

The last extensive rewrite of the state’s litigation rules came after Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2004. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law a measure that capped medical malpractice pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000, added tougher standards for expert witnesses to testify in malpractice trials and offered incentives to patients to settle out of court.

Court rulings have weakened portions of the law, including a Georgia Supreme Court decision in 2010 that struck down the $350,000 cap.

Tort legislation tends to be popular with conservatives, doctors, the insurance lobby and businessmen.

Chris Clark, the CEO and president of the Georgia Chamber, said questionable legislation fuels increases in premiums for doctors and business owners, which he termed “tort taxes.” Those added costs, he said, are then passed along to customers.

Trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups view tort measures as giveaways to the insurance industry and powerful corporations. Limiting awards for damages, they say, puts an arbitrary price on a victim’s life.

Trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups view tort measures as giveaways to the insurance industry and powerful corporations. Limiiting awards for damages, they say, puts an arbitrary price on a victim’s life.

“Parties who have been harmed or injured or exploited or abused deserve an opportunity for our justice system to pursue redress,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is not a lawyer. “And of course it’s also the case that businesses sometimes bear the cost of responding to abusive litigation. So it’s about striking the right balance.”

Fewer foster children are being kept in hotels

Georgia is making significant progress in reducing the number of foster children temporarily housed in hotels.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce has pledged to end the practice known as “hoteling,” which is temporarily housing foster kids in hotels. At a Wednesday public hearing, she said only seven children were placed in hotels the night before and that number would drop the next night.

In 2021 — when the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated problems because fewer people were fostering children and group homes were losing staff to better-paying, less-stressful jobs — an average of about 50 to 60 children were being kept in hotels or office spaces.

“Hoteling will remain a moving target, but we are so close to zero that (the Division of Family and Children Services) is electric,” Broce told the state Senate Foster Care and Adoption Study Committee.

Georgia currently has more than 10,000 children in foster care.

The number of foster children who are staying in hotels can fluctuate, depending on the time of the year. Most recently, the state saw a spike of 95 kids on one night in early July, Broce said. State officials still can’t explain the spike, but they said they were able to steeply decrease the number in the following weeks.

Broce attributes the decrease to several factors, including legislation aimed at reducing the number of children entering foster care and temporary hotel placements.

Additionally, Broce said that a key factor has been working with providers who can find a foster placement for these kids. Some of the most difficult placements involve children who have a developmental disability, an intellectual disability or prior involvement with the delinquency system.

A driver fills the tank of an urban bus with green hydrogen at a bus depot in Palma de Mallorca. The Georgia Department of Transportation is seeking input on how a network of hydrogen fueling stations might be created to serve commercial vehicles in the state. (Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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GDOT eyes the potential of hydrogen to power commercial vehicles

Georgia is well on its way to becoming a leader in e-mobility after persuading Hyundai Motor Group and Rivian that it was the right place for them to build multibillion-dollar electric-vehicle factories.

Now, the state is looking into the potential of powering commercial vehicles, tractor-trailers and other large trucks with hydrogen.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is seeking input from the private sector on how to establish a network of hydrogen fueling stations across the state. Right now, GDOT is just seeking information. The agency is not hiring a firm to build any stations.

If GDOT wants to talk about hydrogen, Hyundai is a good place to start. It already builds hydrogen fuel cell trucks, known as XCIENTs, that it uses to transport materials in South Korea.

The company might find a similar use for the big rigs in Georgia once it starts building EVs and batteries in 2025 at a 3,000-acre manufacturing facility in Bryan County just west of Savannah. The automaker and its suppliers will begin importing an estimated 100,000 shipping containers of parts through the Port of Savannah, five exits east of the plant on I-16.

Speculation has swirled around hydrogen for years as an alternative to fossil fuels.

It’s the most abundant element in the universe, but it faces numerous obstacles before it sees wide use.

“Green” or “clean” hydrogen produced through the use of renewable energy accounts for less than 10% of the hydrogen now produced. The rest is derived from fossil fuels through a process that requires lots of energy and still results in emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

For now, hydrogen is predominantly used in the U.S. for fertilizer and methanol production, but some projections show that by 2050 it could fuel 14% of U.S. energy demand.

Lots of questions will need to be answered before the state makes a full plunge into hydrogen. The cost of a fueling network is unknown, and funding sources to build such a system are not clear.

Some business, academic and political leaders have pitched Georgia to the federal government as a potential research center for the development of hydrogen as a viable energy source.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to create a network of research facilities to explore using hydrogen for industrial, residential and transportation uses. The agency has launched a “Hydrogen Shot” initiative with the aim of cutting the cost of hydrogen by 80% in the next decade. The department has also released a roadmap for advancing the country’s hydrogen economy, which the Biden administration projects could create 100,000 jobs.

Doctor shortage draws spotlight

Georgia’s doctor deficit sparked concern at a Georgia Chamber event this past week in Athens.

Chris Clark, the CEO and president of the Georgia Chamber, threw out the first disturbing statistic, pointing out that doctors’ offices and medical facilities in the state currently have 50,000 openings. That number is expected to grow to 108,000 by 2030.

U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans, sharpened the focus on the shortage at the local level.

“We have eight counties in Georgia with no doctor at all, 11 counties have no family medicine physician, 37 counties have no internists, 63 counties have no pediatrician, 75 counties have no OB-GYN services, 78 counties have no general surgeon,” the congressman said.

Allen suggested offering free tuition as an incentive to lure medical professionals to counties with the most demand.

Political expedience

  • Scott offers warning about farm bill: U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta led his Democratic colleagues on the House Agriculture Committee in writing a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy drawing a “red line” on any cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, in the upcoming farm bill. The letter warned that if conservative Republicans add work requirements for childless adults who receive SNAP benefits, it will jeopardize passage of the measure with the bipartisan support it usually sees. Neither the House nor the Senate has released a draft version of the expected farm bill reauthorization that could carry a price tag of more than $1 trillion over five years. Food stamps are one of the biggest components.
  • Ex-insurance chief’s conviction affirmed: The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2021 conviction of former Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck on 37 counts of fraud and money laundering. The charges involved a scheme to embezzle more than $2 million from his former employer, the Georgia Underwriting Association, that prosecutors said Beck used in part to help finance his successful campaign for office in 2018.

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