‘A defining issue’: Georgia House approves measure overhauling mental health care

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Georgia House gave bipartisan approval to a bill Tuesday that aims to overhaul the way mental health care is accessed in the state, requiring providers to cover the ailment the same way they do for physical illnesses and conditions.

House Bill 1013, sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, would require insurance companies to cover mental health care the same way they cover physical health, establish state grants for outpatient treatment and take other steps to improve care. The bill passed 169-3, with Republican state Reps. Charlice Byrd of Woodstock, Sheri Gilligan of Cumming and Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg the only votes in opposition.

“No matter how long you stay here, few will remember most of the votes that we put up there (on the vote board) or the issues that we worked on,” Ralston said. “But on rare occasions you will be called to vote on a defining issue, an issue bigger than you, bigger than me. I submit to you that this is such an issue.”

Ralston has made HB 1013 his top priority of the legislative session. It also has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp, lawmakers from both parties and mental health advocates.

The move to expand mental health services comes as overdose deaths are rising in Georgia, along with suicides in rural areas. And it comes as the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has lost nearly 1,100 of its 3,837 employees over two years. The staffing shortage meant 185 psychiatric hospital beds couldn’t be filled.

Singleton said while his family has experienced problems with the way mental health care is handled in Georgia, government shouldn’t be the entity to try to fix things.

“I would like everybody to just take one moment to consider the painful irony of us in this body working to find a government solution that implements greater government control in order to solve a problem that is largely the result of government control and policies,” Singleton said.

HB 1013 would implement recommendations from a bipartisan committee that spent three years examining ways to improve mental health care. The bill seeks to increase the number of mental health professionals in Georgia, give first responders help when they’re called to a mental health crisis and improve mental health data and transparency.

Private insurers would be required to submit annual reports about their compliance with a federal law requiring parity in coverage between mental and physical health. The bill would require the state insurance commissioner to enforce the federal law.

State agencies would have to create grant programs for outpatient treatment and accountability courts that would serve mental health patients and those with substance abuse issues.

In all, the bill’s cost to the state would be nearly $30 million a year. Ralston said he expects the Legislature to fund the bill in next year’s budget.

Georgia ranks low nationally on most measurements of mental health treatment and high in the percentage of residents who face challenges, according to a 2021 report by Mental Health America, a century-old nonprofit advocacy group. It put Georgia last for the number of mental health professionals per capita. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says Georgia has only eight psychiatrists per 100,000 children; the academy suggests a better ratio is 47 per 100,000.

HB 1013 now goes to the Senate, and Ralston shared some words with his colleagues across the hall.

“The give-and-take process is healthy. I enjoy it as well as anybody,” Ralston said. “And while every measure is on the table, I hope that they will appreciate that much is at stake with HB 1013. Lives are at stake with this bill. I hope they will think twice before nitpicking or trying to take apart the work that has been done by this commission.”

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