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Proposed Senate bill would create state aging services agency in Georgia

The prevalence of Alzheimers and other dementia forms would be tracked under the proposed legislation

Georgia Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has introduced legislation to create a state agency that would deal with aging services. (Special photo)

Georgia Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has introduced legislation to create a state agency that would deal with aging services. (Special photo)

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Georgia Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, has introduced legislation that would require the Department of Public Health to establish a committee to review maternal deaths and to report on their causes. (Special photo)

ATLANTA — A Senate panel Thursday unanimously passed separate bills that would move the state’s aging services into a new agency, and would track the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in Georgia.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said the two bills and a related resolution arose from proposals by a task force on Alzheimer’s and related types of dementia.

Dementia — from Alzheimer’s and other causes — is on the increase in Georgia and throughout the nation. Deaths from Alzheimer’s nationally jumped 68 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

An estimated 120,000 people in Georgia are living with Alzheimer’s, a figure that’s expected to rise to 160,000 by 2025.

Unterman told GHN that her advocacy on the issue stems from the experience of a friend whose father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “It was a personal experience that showed the sacrifices and struggles families went through,’’ Unterman said.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee also approved a bill Thursday to review all maternal deaths in the state. Georgia has the highest rate of maternal deaths among the 50 states.

The Senate panel also approved a resolution urging a state plan to tackle Alzheimer’s.

The General Assembly last year passed legislation creating a task force to develop a state response plan on Alzheimer’s disease. Georgia had been one of the few states without such a plan to deal with the costly disease, which is the most common cause of dementia.

Nationally, nearly one of every two people over age 85 has Alzheimer’s, researchers say.

Spending on Alzheimer’s care has soared, now reaching $200 billion a year.

On Thursday, advocates for seniors voiced support for Senate Bill 291, which would move the Division of Aging Services out of the Department of Human Services and create a separate agency, albeit one that would still be attached to DHS.

Vicki Johnson, legislative chair of the Georgia Council on Aging, said her organization “strongly believes that aging services be administered separately from children’s services.’’ Currently, both are handled by DHS.

“The needs of Georgia seniors are very different from [those of] our children,’’ Johnson told the panel.

The population of older adults is increasing more rapidly than other segments of the population, Johnson said.

The legislation will help Georgia “adequately plan for that silver tsunami,’’ said Kathy Simpson, director of advocacy for the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Another advocate for seniors, Cindy Nelson, said a new agency is needed to help the state respond quickly to problems and changes involving older Americans.

Nelson noted that the state has a long waiting list for services for seniors, including Meals on Wheels.

Abuse, neglect and exploitation of seniors are increasing, Nelson added.

“While these are big challenges, they are not insurmountable,’’ she said. The state needs an organization “that’s nimble and responsive,’’ she added.

Unterman cited a case in Commerce where a GBI investigation into allegations of abuse at an Alzheimer’s facility led to charges against employees.

Senate Bill 292 would launch a registry of Georgians with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, tracking their prevalence in the state.

The panel also approved Senate Bill 273, sponsored by Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, a physician. It would require the Department of Public Health to establish a committee to review maternal deaths and to report on their causes.

A GHN article last summer reported that the Georgia estimate of 35 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2011 reflected an increase — from 20.5 in the period 2001 to 2006.

A woman’s death was classified as pregnancy-related if it occurred while she was pregnant or within one year after the end of her pregnancy, and if the cause of death was in any way related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.

Dr. Michael Lindsay, an ob/gyn and associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, said 25 states currently conduct such reviews.

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.