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The Georgia Senate is late to introduce a new mental health bill

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The Georgia Senate is late to introduce a new mental health bill

ATLANTA (AP) — Efforts to make further changes to Georgia’s mental health system may stall in the final days of the 2023 legislative session, although a Senate committee on Wednesday introduced a rewritten bill that supporters and advocates in the House of Representatives found broadly acceptable.

That’s because the Senate Health and Human Services Committee did not vote on House Bill 520 and did not schedule another session before Thursday’s deadline for passage of bills from Senate committees.

Committee chair Ben Watson, a Republican from Savannah, said a two-thirds majority of the Senate was needed to override the normal rules and vote on the bill after the deadline. When asked if he would pursue that move, Watson said, “That’s probably not my question to answer.”

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This is obviously a nod to Senate Republican leaders, who on Wednesday escalated a dispute with the House of Representatives over hospital approval and threatened talks on the budget, mental health and other issues at the end of the session. The session is scheduled to end next Wednesday.

House Speaker Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, has made further mental health changes a top priority, a year after then-Speaker David Ralston pushed through reform in the last session before his death.

The plan aims to hire more mental health professionals, help people commuting between hospitals, prisons and homelessness, and explore other needs.

Although the Senate bill was rewritten, it retained many of these goals. Sections that would have prohibited insurers from withholding certain medications and required a housing plan for certain mentally ill homeless people, even if potential renters had criminal records that would normally cause landlords to deny them housing, were removed.

“We’ve reduced a lot of layoffs,” Watson said during the meeting on the new bill. “We tried to make it clear. We left things out when we felt we didn’t need to address that at that particular moment.”

Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat and House co-sponsor, said immediately after the meeting that she believes the bill is workable, although further House-Senate discussions are needed.

But Senate support remains uncertain. A spokesman for Republican Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones criticized the form in which the measure was passed by the House of Representatives even after the committee met Wednesday, including alleging that the bill expanded Medicaid, which Watson refuted during the session.

“HB 520 came with an annual price tag of $71 million, which was only addressed when it was handed over to the Senate chamber,” spokeswoman Ines Owen said in a statement. “These costs, as well as the limited Medicaid expansion in the original bill, have a significant impact on the state and will require more time to be fully evaluated.”

Some conservative Republicans had claimed that the bill unduly expanded the ability to involuntarily commit people to mental health care, that a data-sharing mandate would result in the disclosure of private information, and that supporters could benefit financially from the measure. Watson attempted to dismiss all of these claims as false.

“All state and federal privacy laws will be followed,” Watson promised, saying the data would only contain demographic information. “No names, no personal information, nothing.”

Opponents were unconvinced, saying they didn’t trust the government to provide care and handle data securely, saying it was unfair for the state government to give student loans to psychiatric nurses.

“Most of these corrections are Democratic Party ideas,” said Brett Chromy. “Medicaid expansion, loan forgiveness, that’s not part of the Republican Party’s platform.” Proponents say finding mental health solutions is a multi-year process. Many parts of the bill would require studies aimed at alleviating long-term problems.

The bill would attempt to attract more workers by forgiving student loans to nurses and others already working in the health care sector, in addition to the loan forgiveness granted to current students in last year’s law. It could ease Georgia’s training and licensing requirements for workers trained in other states and countries.

Last year’s measure forced private insurers to conform to long-standing state requirements to provide the same benefits for mental disorders as for physical illnesses. The law also allowed law enforcement officers to take someone they believe is in need of mental health treatment to an emergency facility for evaluation.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.