What’s next for mental health care in Georgia

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

After a strong start in the state House, this year’s effort to improve Georgia’s mental health care system stalled in the Senate, putting proposed improvements in access to care on hold until next year.

House Bill 520 focused on addressing a shortage of mental health providers and streamlining the way agencies share information about patients, including what the bill called “familiar faces” that law enforcement and mental health providers see time and time again.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House but failed to get a vote in a Senate committee.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said several senators balked at the nearly $72 million that the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts said it would cost annually to implement the House version of HB 520.

“Most of us who were here last year all voted for the mental health bill,” Jones told reporters after the Legislature adjourned early Thursday morning. “It had a price tag of $72 million on it when it came over to the Senate. Just like any other bill, it was getting vetted through the committee process and it was just a gap that was too far to close for this year.”

Jones said Senate leaders will work with the House before the next legislative session to get the legislation in a state where both chambers are comfortable.

The bill also was caught up in a struggle between Jones and House leaders over a measure he supported to pave the way for more hospitals to be built in less-populated counties that could have financially benefited his family’s business. He ultimately abandoned his effort to pass that legislation this year.

The Senate panel vetting HB 520 brought forth its own version of the legislation that Republican committee members said they were comfortable with, but the bill never received a vote. Instead, one section of the Senate’s version of HB 520 was inserted into another piece of legislation on the last day of the session and won final approval.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, amended 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.

Kirkpatrick, a surgeon, said HB 520 did not pass the House until late in the process — on March 6, the 27th day of the 40-day session — giving the Senate little time to work on the measure.

“One of the problems with the bill as it came across was that it was really complicated and there were a lot of different subject matter issues,” she said. “That’s always really hard for people to get their brain around and understand. What I wish had happened was that the bill had been broken up into separate topics.”

Last year, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a 76-page overhaul of the mental health care system, which was a priority of then-House Speaker David Ralston, who died in November. The law aims to ensure that insurance companies cover mental health care the same way they do physical health care is covered. Lawmakers also greatly increased funding for mental health services.

But last year’s bill won approval in the House much earlier in the session, by the 13th legislative day, giving senators several weeks to work with the legislation.

“It’s a tall order, and I think it’s quite amazing that we were able to get it done last year,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was a lot of work at the end of the session. ... We got that done. I just don’t think there’s the will to do that every year.”

This year’s bill was 51 pages.

The Senate’s version of SB 520 was 31 pages. Gone were sections dealing with policies that addressed housing access for people with a criminal background due to mental illness-related arrests and an expansion of health-related social supports such as employment training for young people who receive Medicaid.

This year, 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.

“I would be remiss if I did not voice my disappointment that the Senate chose not to act on a priority for this House — our mental health reform,” Burns told reporters. “House Bill 520 was a bipartisan measure in this House, sponsored by leaders from both political parties.”

Like Jones, Burns said House leadership will continue to work to get the measure across the finish line.

“Now, let’s be clear. On the House side, this has always been an issue that focuses on those who need help,” Burns said. “It focuses on their family members who feel they have nowhere to turn. I’m sorry that they will be kept waiting another year.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC