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Nurse practitioners speak with officials

DULUTH - Advanced nurse practitioners and their advocates filled the Mason Primary Care meeting room Tuesday evening in efforts to share information with lawmakers about an ongoing battle that has been taking place for the past 11 years: the battle for advanced practice registered nurses (ANPs) to write prescriptions for patients in Georgia.

Although current law dictates they are allowed to call in prescriptions, they are not allowed to write a prescription despite the fact that 49 states allow ANPs to do it. For the past 11 years, ANPs have lobbied to have this law pushed forth, and each year they have been met with solid opposition from the Georgia Medical Association, which represents the state's doctors.

ANPs maintain that Georgia doctors are hesitant to grant them the right for fear of competition.

"The medical community feels that if advanced nurse practitioners are allowed to write the prescription down (as opposed to calling it in on the phone to pharmacies,) that we'll start opening up our own practices and will take their patients," said Karen Schwartz, an ANP in Gwinnett.

However, ANPs already have the ability to open their own practices. Many are open right now in rural areas of Georgia where doctors are not readily available for patients, Schwartz said. The ANPs still operate, however, in collaboration with a doctor even if he is not physically present within the practice where the ANP is working.

Doctors say their main concern is whether ANPs have adequate training to write prescriptions.

"What they have is a four-year bachelor's degree and a two-year master's," said David Cook, executive director of the medical association. "That's equivalent to physicians with two years in medical school."

Despite the education gap, many doctors who work side by side with ANPs tend to give them full rein in seeing a patient, diagnosing a patient and prescribing a patient's medication.

"I know their knowledge is profound, and I trust them," said Jane Zhong, a doctor at the Mason Primary Care. "It's a legal issue. Yes, sometimes they make mistakes, but doctors make mistakes, too."

The two bills were introduced into the House and the Senate earlier this year and have garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, including prominent leaders such as the chairmen of the two chambers' rules committees, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, and Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs.

But neither got past first base in the legislative process, in large part because they weren't put in the hopper until late in the session. Both remain alive, however, as the General Assembly will meet again in January.

For now, lawmakers are looking at both sides of the story in efforts to serve Georgia residents as best they can.

"I'm anxious to hear how much we can save on Medicaid (by passing this bill). Right now 43 percent of the state budget is spent on Medicaid, so any opportunity we have to reign that in is great," said Freshman Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn.