Health: Governor vetoes bill to create a state health policy director; OKs new law on child sex abuse education.

Health: Governor vetoes bill to create a state health policy director; OKs new law on child sex abuse education.

By Andy Miller
Georgia Health News

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation Tuesday that would have created a state health policy director and a council to develop a “strategic vision’’ for Georgia health care.

In his veto message, Deal said Senate Bill 357, “while well-intentioned, creates several unnecessary additional levels of government.’’

The legislation was backed by key Republican senators on health care issues, Dean Burke of Bainbridge and Renee Unterman of Buford, as well as by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. In a February press release, Cagle said the legislation would help the state become a national leader in patient-centered health reform.

The bill drew support from many health care industry groups.


Burke, a physician, said in a strongly worded statement that “it is difficult to express the level of my disappointment and frustration” with the veto decision.

“This bill’s purpose was to address the complexity and challenging  access, costs and poor health care outcomes faced by all Georgians, but particularly critical in rural Georgia,” Burke said in his statement. “While we do have numerous agencies involved in health care, the level of coordination and innovation in dealing with these issues is not at the level Georgians expect.

“A state that is the No. 1 state in which to do business, should not be ranked 50th in maternal mortality,” Burke added. The purpose of SB 357, he said, was to bring health care experts together and build a consensus “on how we can focus on the most pressing needs and ensure desired improvement in those outcomes – in other words, accountability.”

The proposed 18-member Health Coordination and Innovation Council was intended to develop a platform to address “major health challenges affecting access, effectiveness, and cost of care.”  Also attached to the council would have been a 13-member advisory board.

Deal, though, noted that these boards would be attached to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, yet the OPB director “would have no functional control over these newly created positions and entities.”

SB 357 also would have created a position of director of health care policy and strategic planning, who would be an OPB employee and report directly to the governor.

Deal added that “in addition to the practical management and organizational issues presented by this structure, a new governor will be elected this November, and it should be left to that individual to shape their executive team in 2019.’’

Gov. Deal is ineligible to run again due to term limits, and the party primaries for the governorship and other offices are later this month.

He did sign House Bill 769, which aims to boost rural health care in the state. That legislation contains a provision establishing a Rural Health System Innovation Center.

That center will serve as a research organization that uses Georgia’s academic, public health policy, data, and workforce resources “to develop new approaches for financing and delivering health care in the state,’’ according to the legislation.

Sen. Burke added in his statement about Senate Bill 357 that he understands “the long-term challenges faced by all states to deal with this complex issue, and pledge to my constituents and all Georgians that efforts to improve these critical health care challenges will be continued by me, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, the Senate and House leadership and my colleagues of the Georgia General Assembly.”

National activist hails state’s new law on child sex abuse education

By Andy Miller
Georgia Health News

The first sexual abuse that Erin Merryn suffered was by an adult neighbor. She was 6 years old when it started and 8 when it ended.

“I didn’t tell anyone,’’ Merryn says now. “Nobody knew why I was acting out.’’

Then a teenage cousin sexually abused her when she was 11 to 13 years old.


Merryn soon came forward with her story. And as a high school senior, she self-published her diary, “Stolen Innocence.” Now, at age 33, she leads a crusade to get personal body safety taught to kids in public schools across the nation.

Merryn was in Georgia on Tuesday at the signing ceremony for Senate Bill 401. This new state law requires that public school students from kindergarten through the ninth grade get annual, age-appropriate education about sexual abuse and assault and how to prevent them.

Georgia is the 35th state to pass similar legislation, known as Erin’s Law.

It was among a flurry of bills signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday.

Research conducted by the CDC estimates that about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before age 18.

Such abuse can lead to serious mental health issues, addiction and other problems, says Merryn, who lives in Chicago.

The proposal, though it did not draw opposition, got sidetracked during the General Assembly session this year, and almost died amid the late-session legislative maneuverings.

But the language requiring education on sexual abuse and assault found its way onto Senate Bill 401, which passed in the final minutes of the final day of the legislative session.

Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) was the main force driving the proposal.


He said Tuesday that he was moved to act in part by the sexual abuse scandal that hit the U.S. gymnastics team. The longtime team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar, is effectively serving life in prison for sexually abusing numerous young athletes over a period of years.

“Two of the young ladies told their parents [about the abuse], and their parents didn’t believe them,’’ Cantrell said Tuesday.

“I think we do a great job warning kids about talking to strangers,’’ Cantrell said. But most abuse is done by someone the child is familiar with, he said.

Even a parent could be an abuser, or closely related to an abuser, Cantrell noted.

The legislation also mandates the training of the instructor, who should be either a teacher or school counselor. Cantrell said his goal was to give schools flexibility on how to comply with the law.

“It’s not sex education,’’ he said. “It’s trying to alert kids what to watch out for — what is ‘good touch and bad touch,’ and what to do if this occurs.”

Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group, praised the legislation. “Sexually assaulted children often do not know who to talk to or even what has happened to them,’’ said Polly McKinney of Voices. “Age-appropriate education on the subject can prevent abuse or help children find help when they need it.”

Merryn said she wants to bring the legislation to the 15 remaining states that don’t have such a law.

Kindergarten is not too young for this instruction, she said.

A lesson for kindergarten students and first-graders, for example, could be showing students “pictures of kids in their swimsuits,’’ and saying that areas of the body that are covered by a swimsuit should never be touched by other people, Merryn said.

Her goal, she says, is “to end this silent epidemic. We can’t sweep this under the rug anymore.”

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