After weeks of debate, mental health bill clears Georgia Senate panel

Supporters and opponents of a bill aiming to overhaul mental health care in Georgia hold signs during a Senate committee meeting. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

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Supporters and opponents of a bill aiming to overhaul mental health care in Georgia hold signs during a Senate committee meeting. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

After two weeks of emotional hearings, a Senate panel on Monday passed its version of legislation that aims to expand the way mental health is covered in Georgia.

The new version of House Bill 1013 would require most insurance companies to cover mental health care the same way physical health is covered, forgive student loans for mental health providers who work in underserved areas of the state and take other steps to improve care. The bill passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously.

“It’s been a journey,” said Senate Health Chairman Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and physician. “Do I think that’s going to satisfy everybody? No. I do not. But you have to do what was right, and I think that we have done that.”

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, sponsored HB 1013, calling it a “defining issue” for the Legislature to tackle — especially when it comes to what is known as “parity,” meaning covering physical and mental health in the same way.

In a statement, Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said the speaker and others were reviewing the changes to the bill with experts and advocates but were happy that the legislation advanced. State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said there is still work to be done.

“There’s a lot of changes made that we’ve been participating in or knowing about over the weekend,” she said. “And there’s work to do, and we appreciate the opportunity to continue work.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee overhauled much of HB 1013 after weeks of pushback from conservative groups and voters.

Speakers at five hearings across the past two weeks voiced concerns with the bill, saying it would protect pedophiles from prosecution due to inclusion of definitions of mental illnesses from the World Health Organization and maintaining that the bill would require private insurance companies to cover treatments that go against the religious beliefs held by the business owners.

As passed on Monday, all references to the World Health Organization were stripped from the legislation, instead using the mental illness definitions already included in state code. Senators also voted to no longer require all health insurance companies to cover mental health and allow individual insurance companies to define what is considered “medically necessary.”

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat and anesthesiologist, said she was concerned that there was no guidance for what private companies could deem to be a necessary procedure and, in turn, choose not to cover.

“I just wonder if this weakens the original intent of the parity section of the bill itself,” she said.

Watson said there were opportunities for more changes to be made.

Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican who spoke against the bill on the House floor and was one of three representatives to vote against the measure, was greeted with cheers when he stopped by the Senate committee meeting before it began. His floor speech against the bill has made the rounds among many of the state’s conservative voters.

“It’s because of your advocacy that changes have been made,” Singleton said.

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.