Georgia lawmakers unanimously pass bill overhauling mental health services

A sweeping mental health bill designed to lift Georgia from the bottom on access to treatment is on its way to the governor’s desk.

the the invoiceLed by Republican House Speaker David Ralston, overcame health insurer opposition, intense resistance by ultra-conservatives packing hearings on the measure and false claims the bill would protect pedophiles.

And in an era of hyperpartisanship exacerbated by election-year politics, the drive for improvements in mental health and addiction treatment brought lawmakers from both parties behind the measure. In the final votes on Wednesday, the bill passed unanimously in both chambers with applause and even a few tears.

“We are reminded again today that truth is a powerful force,” said Ralston, who created the bill his top priority for this year’s legislative session and who became emotional at the Senate’s announcement overwhelmingly supported the measure.

Georgia 48th place when it comes to access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America. The COVID-19 pandemic also uncovered treatment gaps and exacerbated a statewide provider shortage that was tightening bipartisan energy before the meeting. Predictions that this would be the “Year of Mental Health” came true.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, and Rep. Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican, react after their mental health bill was finally approved Wednesday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The result is a bill that strengthens enforcement a 14-year-old federal law mandating health insurers to treat behavioral health benefits on an equal footing with physical care. Proponents say a compromise version of the measure unveiled on Wednesday will make medical professionals – and not insurers – responsible for what care should be covered. The parity rules come into effect in July.

“We can say with certainty that after the passage of this bill and the governor signing it, the state of Georgia is on par,” said Assemblyman Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican who supported the bill and highlighted that his own family is fighting about finding consistent behavioral therapy for his son.

When asked Wednesday if he had a message for insurance companies going forward, Ralston said, “Do the right thing and obey the law.”

But the measure does much more. That requires it a certain percentage Money in publicly funded insurance programs goes toward patient care rather than administrative costs, creating a callable services loan program designed to help increase the state’s behavioral health staff in underserved areas of the state.

“We recognize the fact that we can have all of the world’s mental health coverage in our state, but if we don’t have the workforce to deliver this service to every corner of our state, we still won’t be successful anything,” said Senator Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican who carried the Senate bill.

The proposal also provides grants for court-ordered outpatient treatment programs and accountability courts, and increases mental health training for law enforcement through a government training center.

And the bill was tied to a Senate proposal supporting local co-responder teams that send a law enforcement officer and a behavioral health professional on crisis calls. Nine areas of the state, such as Savannah and Forsyth County, already have such co-responder teams.

“We believe this will help save Georgia tax dollars because we will reduce the number of people with mental illness in our prisons,” said Rep. Park Cannon, an Atlanta Democrat who said he had a ” Co-Responders for Behavioral Health” defined state code was a long-awaited change.

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On the way, a few provisions were cut from the bill. For example, the Senate dropped a controversial proposed amendment to the state’s criteria for involuntary placement that would have removed the need for someone to be at “imminent” risk of harming themselves or others.

The three Republicans, who previously opposed the bill and helped spark vocal opposition in the Senate, voted in favor of it on Wednesday. Rep. Philip Singleton, a Republican from Sharpsburg, told conservative activists this week that many of the parts that worried him were no longer included in the bill. Among other things, Singleton had objected to references to the World Health Organization and the now deleted change in the criteria for involuntary commitment.

The bill is the result of a reform-oriented commission established in 2019, and lawyers and lawmakers have often described this year’s action as the first step in a multi-year effort. The Commission will continue to meet and advance recommendations.

Senator Michelle Au, a Democrat from Johns Creek, called this year’s bill “transformative” and a framework for the work still to be done.

“HB 1013 is a bipartisan commitment to the people of Georgia that we recognize that mental health and substance use disorder care is just as important as treating medical and surgical care,” Au said. “It’s a recognition that we can and will do better, and it’s a validation that this bill, while significant, is only the first step in our commitment to the work ahead.”