Georgia Senate panel works to reach common ground on mental health bill

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After it cleared the House with nearly unanimous support, legislation that aims to increase access to mental health treatment in Georgia has spent a week under intense study by a state Senate panel.

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, loosen the guidance on when law enforcement can involuntarily commit someone in need of help and take other steps to improve care.

Members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee have passed pieces of legislation in recent years that address similar topics as those included in HB 1013, and they are now trying to bring those concepts in line.

“I do not look at these as mutually exclusive,” said Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and physician. “Our bills are good, your bills are good, and we’ll continue to work together on this. ... But this is not the end-all. We are not going to cure mental health (with) this by any means.”

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.

A subcommittee of the Senate panel has spent the week slowly working through the 77-page House bill, dedicating meetings to discussing topics including parity and bolstering the mental health workforce.

The federal government in 2008 enacted a law that aimed to require parity — meaning insurance companies were to cover mental health care the same way they do for physical health care. Data has not been collected in Georgia to determine whether that is happening, but anecdotal evidence has shown it is not, said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Marietta Republican and surgeon.

Kirkpatrick sponsored Senate Bill 342, which passed the Senate earlier this year, to require private insurance companies to report annually to the state insurance commissioner how the insurers are covering mental and physical health services.

HB 1013 would take the regulations further by requiring public health insurance — Medicare and Medicaid — to file reports on parity to the Department of Public Health commissioner. It also empowers the insurance and public health commissioners to enforce the 2008 federal law.

“The reason to put something in state law is for us to know what’s going on in the marketplace,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think that the House bill does more than what my bill does, and we’ll decide if that’s a good idea or bad idea as we go through the process.”

Ralston has made HB 1013 his top priority this 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.

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

State Sen. Dean Burke, a Bainbridge Republican and physician who is chairman of the subcommittee studying HB 1013, said Thursday that he is holding off on deciding what, if anything, he would like to see changed in the House bill until the panel has finished working its way through the legislation.

“I’m still in the information gathering phase,” he said. “I’m not looking that far ahead just yet.”

The session ends April 4.