Good news in health care: career boost for nurses, genetic counseling ‘game-changer’
Despite what feels like a revolving door of overreaching health care legislation, especially around access to abortions and gender-affirming care, Floridians now have good health news: In the last 24 hours, state lawmakers have advanced bills expanding telehealth authority for genetic counselors and boosting authority of certified nursing assistants.
On Friday, the House Health & Human Services Committee unanimously passed what Chair Chuck Clemons, a Republican representing Gilchrist, Levy, and part of Alachua counties, deemed eight “good” bills, including the nursing-assistant bill.
Meanwhile, in a 38-0 vote, the Senate on Thursday passed a bill allowing licensed genetic counselors to provide services using telehealth. The bill, SB 218, addresses a glaring problem: lack of access to genetic counselors in Florida.
“There’s not enough genetic counselors physically in the state to see everybody,” Laura Barton, a licensed genetic counselor at Moffitt Cancer Center, told the Phoenix.
A 2019 Florida Association of Genetic Counselors report shows one genetic counselor for every 500,000 individuals living in the state, “one of the lowest GC: patient ratios in the country.”
Barton said she knows one genetic counselor between Tallahassee and the Panhandle — who only specializes in cancer services. From her experience, providing services via telehealth will enable more patients to seek care over the computer, she said.
“It’s really a game-changer, in my mind, for the field of genetic counseling in Florida,” Barton said.
In 2021, Florida passed the Genetic Counseling Workforce Act, which requires genetic counselors to be licensed by the Florida Department of Health.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Republican representing Martin and parts of Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, said the bill “unfortunately” failed to allow telehealth services to counselors. The new bill gives them the green light on this practice.
Barton called the bill a “first step” in solidifying the role of genetic counselors in what she calls the “team” of health-care professionals. Nearly two years later, she said, this new law finally resolves the ambiguity of what used to be a “facility-dependent” service.
“It’s very clear what our scope of practice is, from our licensure bill and now to this telehealth statute being amended — it’s very clear the way we can practice,” she added.
Barton described genetics as an “equal-opportunity offender,” meaning it leaves no one out. That considered, her patient demographic goes “all the way across the board.” Alleviating the pressure on patients, whether by cutting travel time or offering services in the comfort of their homes, is another win, she said.
A little context, a long time coming
In 2020, Florida became the first state to enact an expansion of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), a federal law passed in 2008 shielding genetic information from life, long-term care, and disability insurers.
“I had so many patients decide not to do testing because they felt like, ‘Well, if I do this test and I have some gene mutation, I’ll never be able to get licensure down the road,'” Barton said. She added that the GINA expansion is “one of the rare instances of Florida leading the pack in patient protection legislation,” a success she is proud of.
Barton also serves as the FLAGC’s’ public affairs co-chair, an organization she helped found in 2016 — so it’s been a long time coming.
“I’m not sure what I have on the horizon in terms of what other legislation we might need, but yes, it’s been a really incredible decade,” she said.
For Florida certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, HB 351 authorizes board-certified professionals with at least one year of experience to administer medications under the direct supervision of a registered nurse. They’d be called a qualified medication aide, or QMA.
Rep. Will Robinson, a Republican representing part of Manatee County, said the bill empowers CNAs with a pathway to higher wages and broaden their career opportunities.
“This is another important step forward in addressing the workforce challenges in our health care system,” he said.