Special to SEGAZINE
There’s more — and less — than meets the eye concerning a recent mini-flap over legislation by State Sen. Buddy Carter.
His Senate Bill 408 dealt with insurance reimbursements to pharmacists for increases in prescription drug prices. Introduced relatively late in the session, it never came to the floor.
The Pooler Republican, one of several hundred independent pharmacists in Georgia, arguably had a dog in the hunt.
The bill would have required quicker adjustments in reimbursements to druggists when prices rise.
Carter contended that drugstore chains and big mail-order pharmacy houses can endure long gaps between price hikes and reimbursement adjustments more easily than independent pharmacists.
Although he failed to convince me it would save me money on prescriptions, he called his legislation a consumer bill.
But he had a point — up to a point — when he claimed we benefit from preserving competition — which he said his bill would do — because that gives us more choices.
Enter now TV news, which — under the guise of investigative reporting — sometimes adds two and two and gets seven.
An Atlanta outlet last month waved the red flag of “conflict of interest,” hinting that Carter’s bill was intended to line his pockets.
It interviewed — among others — a representative of a group of people who work with insurers and determine reimbursement rates and how frequently they’re updated. Such individuals often have financial ties to mail-order prescription drug houses.
Anyway, the interviewee said only people who — like Carter — own drugstores would benefit from his bill.
There’s nothing wrong with quoting such sources. Obviously, they deserve a seat at the table during any discussion of the issue.
Only thing is, the station at least seemed to pass this guy off as a disinterested industry expert. Maybe that’s how it got seven out of two plus two.
And no doubt Carter looked like a fat target because he’s seeking the congressional seat Jack Kingston is giving up to run for the U.S. Senate.
Even so, Carter’s bill might look to the casual observer like a conflict of interest. After all, it would help, or as he put it, “level the playing field” for a class of people that includes him.
But contrary to what was at least implied to metro Atlanta viewers, General Assembly ethics rules don’t classify sponsorship of such legislation as a conflict of interest.
So the station rounded up a good-government type — bless them all — I’ve quoted ‘em, too — and an Emory University faculty member, who suggested it ought to be considered one.
They’re half right. And half wrong.
It’s often argued — wisely so — that you should avoid not just conflicts of interest, but appearances of same.
But let’s get real. For better or worse, we have a part-time legislature.
That means the 236 people who spend two to three months in Atlanta and then — most of them anyway — work for a living the rest of the year.
They include lawyers, farmers, retail merchants, often a physician such as our Rep. Ben Watson or a dentist such as our Sen. Lester Jackson, bankers, real estate folks, and yes, pharmacists — among them another Savannahian, Rep. Ron Stephens. Plus some retirees.
And, unfortunately, not many 9-to-5 workers, because — among other reasons — they can’t get enough time off.
Anyway, here’s the point: Most bills considered at the Capitol at least indirectly affect some lawmakers — and sometimes lots of them.
Moreover, government has in recent decades waded deeper into the thicket of regulating business, industry, the professions, and vocational licensing.
Like it or not, that trend inevitably increases perceptions of conflict of interest in any part-time legislature, unless dozens of lawmakers abstain from voting on many — if not most — bills.
Back to Carter.
He offers no apologies for SB 408, which had a House companion measure sponsored by Ben Harbin, who, by the way, is an insurance guy, not a pharmacist.
“When I have expertise on a matter like this and believe something is right,” Carter said, “I’m not going to back down just because someone might criticize me.”
He also notes that he’s sponsored other pharmacy-related measures that didn’t promote the economic interests of drugstore owners.
Still, I’m guessing that, next time around, he’ll try harder to recruit someone else to carry any new version of SB 408.
Bottom line: There might — or might not — be good reasons to vote against Carter in the local GOP congressional primary on May 20.
But, if there are, SB 408 isn’t one of them.