Georgia Legislature passes small portion of mental health bill

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The Georgia Senate quietly added a portion of a stalled House effort to expand on last year’s overhaul of the mental health care system to another bill on Wednesday that gained final passage.

House Bill 520 focused on addressing a shortage of mental health providers and streamlining the way agencies share information about patients. It also aimed to create a way for state agencies to share information that could help address what the bill called “familiar faces” that law enforcement and mental health providers see time and time again.

But after HB 520 overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this month, progress slowed in the Senate.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, inserted language in Senate Bill 23 to streamline the way agencies share information about patients, addressing concerns about violating their privacy that were raised by some conservative groups.

“The purpose of this is to force our state agencies to share their data with the Office of Planning and Budget,” she said. “This information that would be shared with the Office of Planning and Budget is already deidentified, aggregated and follows all state and federal law.”

Both the Senate and House overwhelmingly approved SB 23, which would revise the names of some of the state’s various committees and commissions, sending it to the governor for his signature.

HB 520 was a continuation of an effort that began last year under then-Speaker David Ralston, who died in November. Current House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Springfield, put his support behind HB 520 and the bipartisan team of lawmakers who ushered last year’s measure to the governor’s desk.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who was one of the lead sponsors of HB 520, said it was disappointing that the Senate only approved a “tiny” portion of the mental health bill.

“This is the only provision that is offered from the Senate for mental health reform in 2023,” she said. ”I must express disappointment that we are not moving forward with mental health reform as the House wished.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee discussed changes to HB 520 but did not vote on the bill before that chamber’s deadline for a panel to pass legislation and still have it be considered before the full Senate this year.

The version of HB 520 discussed by the Senate committee would have trimmed down the bill that passed the House. It would have removed a section involving housing access for people with a criminal background due to mental illness-related arrests and another addressing an expansion of health-related social supports such as employment training for young people who receive Medicaid.

State Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, who was planning to sponsor HB 520 in the Senate, said last week that while the bill as a whole did not have a clear path forward, there would be attempts to pass pieces of it and come back next year to address the rest.

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.