Georgia lawmakers are scheduled to meet Monday to study barriers that block Georgians’ access to adequate health care. The committee is set to examine ways to remedy provider shortages and ease scope of practice restrictions on advanced practice registered nurses. Georgia lawmakers can use this opportunity to consider some sensible solutions to improve provider capacity and diversity and expand access to care throughout the state.

Georgia’s health care system is failing to keep pace with the needs of the state’s rapidly growing and diversifying population. Nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s counties are below the statewide average per 100,000 residents in each of the four medical professional categories of nurses, physician assistants, total doctors and primary care physicians. Health care providers in the state are also not representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the patients they serve. Forty-five percent of Georgians belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, while minorities account for only 24 percent of physician assistants, 35 percent of registered nurses and 37 percent of physicians. Better representation of minorities in health professions can also improve access to health care in the state’s medically underserved areas.

Read about promising remedies for Georgia’s provider shortage and how the state can unlock the benefits of an inclusive health workforce. Some highlights:

Funding to support health professional training, including:

  • Funding for medical residency programs
  • Scholarships, loan repayment and other financial incentives to remove financial barriers for people seeking health professional careers
  • Increased support for pipeline training programs and diversity initiatives at health professional schools

Policies to promote diversity and inclusion, including:

  • Required cultural competency training for health care providers
  • Inclusive immigration policies to establish a welcoming environment for foreign-born health professionals

Expanding access to care, including:

  • Easing scope of practice restrictions
  • Expanding Medicaid coverage to increase health system capacity
  • Increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates

This year, Georgia lawmakers made some progress on one of these fronts by adding new residency slots and increasing funding for provider payment increases and loan repayment programs. The state’s Department of Community Health budget includes funding for 126 new residency slots in primary care medicine and 20 slots for OB/GYN residency programs. These new positions can also help attract more diversity because minority physicians are more likely to practice in primary care specialties than their white counterparts. The department received $17.9 million from a legal settlement to increase primary care reimbursement rates and used $5.37 million of state money to increase dental care reimbursement rates. The Board for Physician Workforce added an additional $200,000 to expand the state’s loan repayment program to encourage more physicians to work in rural communities. Legislation passed this year to expand the program to include not just physicians, but also dentists, physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses.

Georgia lawmakers also passed legislation this year to ease restrictions on services some providers are allowed to administer. House bill 154 allows dental hygienists to deliver basic dental care under general supervision from a dentist. That means the dentist does not need to be physically present. Senate bill 153 allows optometrists to deliver limited injections to areas near the eye, which only ophthalmologists could do before the law took effect in July. Georgia joins fifteen other states with similar laws that help expand access to eye care treatment. 

This marks progress, but Georgia can do more to strengthen the health care workforce and ensure better access to medical help across the state. Rural hospitals still struggle with finances. Several hospitals closed in rural communities the past few years. About 300,000 Georgians fall in the so-called coverage gap. They make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive subsidies in the insurance marketplace. Closing the coverage gap through Medicaid expansion remains the best option to bring billions of federal dollars to the state and increase hospital revenue. That money can help hospitals hire and train more providers.

Lawmakers looking for ways to ease Georgia’s health care access problem will do well to explore all these options to solve the growing crisis.

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Laura Harker
Laura Harker joined GBPI in 2016 as a health policy analyst. She is responsible for researching and reporting on Georgia’s health policies and related spending. She holds a master’s degree in public health policy from Emory University and a bachelor’s degree in health policy and management from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Laura can be reached at (404) 420-1324 x 103.

1 COMMENT

  1. Laura,
    I was glad to see loan repayment initiatives. These have been used in Oklahoma and have been tied to addressing tobacco use treatment in rural areas. GA might want to tie them to more effective health strategies for older adults such as home care. COAGE has been working on funding in this arena.

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