(The Center Square) – Gov. Brian Kemp has signed a bill into law to protect Georgians from unexpected medical bills.
Kemp signed House Bill 888, dubbed the Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act, which stops patients from being charged for out-of-network health care services.
"This is an historic step forward for Georgia when it comes to health care, and, frankly, it couldn't come at a better time as our state and country face the greatest public health challenge we have seen in the 21st Century," Kemp said Thursday during a bill-signing ceremony at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta.
Surprise bills often are a result of emergency room or urgent care visits when patients go to facilities that are covered by their insurance plans but are treated by a physician or medical professional who is not within the insurer's network.
The insurance company could opt out of paying for the services, and patients could end up being billed by the provider, oftentimes weeks later.
An average of 13 percent of emergency room visits in Georgia in 2017 resulted in at least one out-of-network charge, Kaiser Foundation researchers found.
The state now joins 29 other states in enacting surprise billing legislation, according to data from the Commonwealth Fund.
The Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act removes patients from the process and allows the medical provider to bill the insurance company directly.
The legislation received bipartisan support from the General Assembly and has been applauded by many in the medical community.
"Today is a momentous day for patients and physicians in Georgia," representatives for Physicians for Fair Coverage tweeted Thursday. "After nearly five years of work, legislation to protect residents in that state from surprise medical bills has finally been signed into law."
Insurance companies now have the option to negotiate the price through an arbitrator, a qualified third-party medical professional who will review the claim.
Ross Marchand, vice president of policy for Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said the arbitration process is "a step in the right direction" because it eliminates government-set rates.
"I think that's what got us into this mess, to begin with, in terms of narrowing networks and restricting options for doctors and insurers," he said.
Blocking surprise bills also can reduce government spending on health care, especially on public-funded plans, according to Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
After examining data from a commercial insurance company, Yale University researchers estimated resolving the issue could have decreased health spending by $40 billion for the tens of millions of Americans the company covered.
Kemp also signed House Bill 1114 on Thursday, which extends postpartum Medicaid coverage for mothers by four months. Previous law allowed mothers to use the state-funded insurance coverage up to two months after giving birth.
The new law increases Medicaid spending by Georgia for the current fiscal year by $19.7 million, according to the state's budget.