The Georgia House of Representatives returned to the Gold Dome for the eighth week of the 2020 legislative session on March 2. My colleagues and I were in session for four days this week, and we passed several important bills and resolutions on the House floor. With “Crossover Day” coming up on Thursday, March 12, we spent our time this week working to meet this important deadline by voting on legislation on the House floor and vetting legislation in our committees.

We kicked off the week by unanimously passing legislation to aid in the fight against human trafficking in Georgia. House Bill 823 would allow the Georgia Department of Driver Services to revoke a person’s commercial driver’s license and impose a lifetime CDL ban in Georgia for those who are convicted and knowingly used a commercial vehicle in the commission of a human trafficking crime, which includes trafficking an individual for labor servitude or sexual servitude.

HB 823 is one of three legislative measures announced by Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp this session that seek to end human trafficking in Georgia, and this legislation would work in accordance with a federal regulation that was created by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2019.

Over 3,600 children are sold into sex trafficking in Georgia every year, and our largest city, Atlanta, was listed by the FBI as one of 14 U.S. cities with the most sex trafficking activity. Our state and federal leaders are committed to bringing this terrible industry to an end, and HB 823 would prevent commercial trucking from being used as a gateway for perpetrators to commit this horrific crime.

The House also passed two important pieces of legislation to protect our citizens from incurring unexpected medical costs. One of the leading causes of bankruptcy is surprise medical bills, which is a medical bill that results when an insured patient receives treatment from an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility. To address this, we passed House Bill 888, or the “Surprise Billing Consumer Act,” which would require insurance providers to pay for emergency medical services without need for any prior authorization and without any retrospective payment denial for medically necessary services, regardless of whether a health care provider giving emergency medical services is a participating provider or not.

In both emergency and non-emergency care, the medical provider would only bill a patient based on their deductible, co-insurance, co-payment or other cost-sharing amount. Furthermore, health care plans would not be able to deny or restrict covered benefits from a participating provider to a covered patient solely because the patient obtains treatment from a non-participating provider leading to a balance bill. Finally, HB 888 would establish a process for dealing with disputed bills by allowing for arbitration between the insurer and the provider and would set various rules for arbitration proceedings.

In addition to HB 888, we also passed the “Surprise Bill Transparency Act” to increase awareness and provide a resource regarding insurance coverage for hospital-based specialty groups. House Bill 789 would create a health benefit plan surprise bill rating system to determine if a patient’s benefit plan would apply to certain hospital-based specialty groups, including anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists and emergency medicine physicians. This straightforward system would be comprised of four red and green marks, and the number of marks, or lack thereof, would be determined by the number of qualified hospital-based specialty group types that the health benefit plan is contracted for the provision of health care services. This bill would also require insurers to make this information available for patients to view online for each network plan.

We have been carefully crafting legislation over the last several years to ensure Georgians are protected from surprise billing, and with these bills, we have a good start so our citizens will be able to receive the medical treatment they need without the unexpected burden of surprise billing. Many of us still believe that for a routine medical procedure, without complications, you should be able to know the complete cost before going into surgery. We will continue to work on this until that is achieved for you.

We also unanimously passed House Bill 914 to support our military families and veterans as they make our state their home. This bill would streamline and expedite the professional licensing process for military spouses, as well as service members who are transitioning into the private sector, when they move to our state. HB 914 would require professional licensing boards to issue expedited licenses to those who hold a current license for their job and are in good standing with another state. Military families are 10 times more likely to move than other families, and when these families move to Georgia, spouses who work in fields that require state licensing have to start from the beginning to become licensed. Likewise, transitioning service members may have to wait extended periods of time before they can earn a living in their field of expertise. Members of the military, along with their spouses and families, make immense sacrifices as they move from state to state to serve our country, but this legislation would help them quickly secure professional opportunities and would make Georgia a more military-friendly state.

Before we finished week eight, we passed legislation to expand and improve Georgia’s hemp farming laws. House Bill 847 would allow any college or university in Georgia to operate a pilot hemp research program, and it would permit colleges and universities to engage third parties to assist in these research programs. The bill would also allow a licensed provider to provide or sell hemp to a Georgia college or university or to another provider who is not licensed in Georgia but is located in a state with a hemp regulation plan that is in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill would require that any hemp or hemp products that are shipped, transported or delivered to have proper documentation to indicate that the product meets federal hemp guidelines, including that it does not exceed the federally defined THC level for hemp. Finally, HB 847 would increase the initial permit fee for a hemp processor to $50,000 from $25,000 to help keep Georgia’s hemp program sustainable and would revise background check requirements for licensees and permittees. This legislation would build upon the Georgia Hemp Farming Act, which was enacted in 2019 and first established a hemp farming industry our state, and this follow-up measure would allow this new industry to thrive in Georgia.

We return to the Capitol on Monday, March 9, for the ninth week of the 2020 legislative session with the critical “crossover” deadline approaching fast. I encourage you to contact my office with questions or concerns regarding any issues or legislation that may interest you as we reach this significant milestone of the session. My Capitol office number is 404-656-0177, and my email address is tom.kirby@house.ga.gov. Please contact me anytime.

As always, it is an honor to serve you and to be your voice in state government.

Tom Kirby, a Republican from Loganville, represents portions of Barrow, Gwinnett, Rockdale and Walton counties in the state House of Representatives.