By WALTER C. JONES
ATLANTA — A clue to how at least one consumer-protection bill may fair in this year’s session of the General Assembly came during a panel discussion when all four legislators and the moderator complained of being victimized.
That issue was something called balance billing in which patients get charges they expected their health insurance to cover. It’s one of dozens of matters dealing with consumers up for consideration in the remaining 28 days of the session.
From predatory lending and garnishment to electricity rates and data breeches, a broad range of bills impact family pocketbooks directly.
“We feel this is a big year for consumer issues in Georgia,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy Georgia Watch.
One consumer bill, garnishment reform, is almost certain to pass this year because groups on all sides of the issue have been meeting weekly since summer to come up with legislation they can mostly agree on, according to Senate Bill 255 sponsor Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro.
“The business community, as well as consumers, are anxious to have a fix,” said Stone, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee and who has worked on the bill with his House counterpart.
The eagerness for a new law is because a federal judge invalidated the state’s previous law for failing to give adequate notice to consumers and listing their options for protecting certain benefit income from attachment such as worker’s compensation or Social Security benefits.
Bankers and creditors want the procedures ironed out so they can resume garnishing — using a court order to get a portion of a delinquent debtor’s income sent to the lender. And consumer advocates want the new notice protections in place.
Another lending-related consumer bill is House Bill 812, the Military Consumer Protection Act, that would authorize the state to enforce federal restrictions on companies that make small loans.
“It puts predatory lenders on notice that this bill will allow the state to take action on predatory lenders versus it having to be a federal thing,” said sponsor Rep. Brian Prince, D-Augusta, and a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
While civilians can be victims of unscrupulous lenders, the bill is especially desired in cities like Augusta with military bases, he said, because often those companies prey on service members and their spouses.
The bill is part of this year’s legislative agenda of the House Democratic Caucus.
A debt-related bill that is due for introduction would restrict healthcare providers’ ability to start debt collection against a patient’s assets without first learning how much insurance will cover.
“It helps a person who is already the victim of an accident from being a further victim,” Coyle said.
Medical issues are central to several of the consumer bills this year, in large part because medical expenses are the reason for most bankruptcies. And balance billing, or what consumer advocates call “surprise billing,” is one of patients’ biggest annoyances.
It happens when getting treatment at a hospital and one of the physicians sends a bill for the balance above what health insurance pays. In that case, the hospital and attending physician are both in the patient’s insurance network, but the radiologist, anesthesiologist or another specialist that the patient didn’t select is not a member of the network.
In the panel discussion Georgia Watch hosted Thursday, each of the four legislators recounted an experience even though they are well-informed on insurance matters.
“When we finished and the smoke cleared, we were in debt,” said Sen. Ed Harbinson, D-Columbus, recalling his wife’s knee operation. “So, I’m highly motivated to support this bill.”
No bill has been introduced yet, but advocates expect one. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee held hearings on the topic last October.
During that hearing, a former president of the Medical Association of Georgia, Dr. Todd Williamson, blamed insurance companies for narrow networks and confusing practices.
“If a patient receives care from a doctor outside their network, this doctor does not have in-network access to the plan’s covered patients and has no ability to reduce his or her charges based on the promise of more referrals,” he said.
SB302 would at least require insurance companies to keep current their online directories of in-network providers so patients, and other providers, could see an accurate list if they are trying to avoid out-of-network charges.
One of the legislators on Thursday’s panel discussion, Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Decatur, announced plans to reintroduce a bill to lower electricity bills for Georgia Power customers. Her measure would require the company to stop in March 2017 its collecting of a surcharge to cover some financing costs of the construction of two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. The General Assembly authorized the surcharge ahead of the new reactors’ planned operating date of March 2017, but now that construction is 39 months behind schedule, Drenner doesn’t think it’s appropriate to keep collecting what some experts predict would be more than $1 billion above what was originally planned.
“At some point, we as consumers have to say, ‘Enough. We helped you. We want to help you. We need the plants.’ But we can’t continue to support the plant, from my perspective, without an end in sight,” she said.
Sitting next to her was Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, chairman of the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee. Her bill would likely come before his committee. He didn’t say which way he would stand on her bill, but he did compliment Georgia Power’s employees.
“They do a good job. It’s run by good people,” he said.
So, every consumer bill is not assured of passage. Those that impose restrictions or added costs on the businesses are likely to at least be opposed.