Wide-ranging mental health bill aims to increase access to services in Georgia

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Georgia’s House Speaker David Ralston rolled out legislation Wednesday that he said will increase access to mental health services and improve the way the issue is addressed in the state.

House Bill 1013 aims to expand Georgians’ access to care, increase the number of mental health professionals in the state, require insurance companies to cover mental health the same way they cover physical health, give first responders help when they’re called into a mental health crisis, and improve data and transparency in the sector.

“Mental health issues touch almost every family in this state,” Ralston said. “Mental health intersects with public safety. It drains our economy of productivity. At its most basic level, it allows hopelessness to win the battle for the future and bring pain to those who are left to suffer the consequences.”

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, was flanked by a bipartisan collection of state representatives, mental health advocates and commissioners from the state’s Insurance, Corrections and Juvenile Justice departments during a press conference announcing the legislation. It’s rare for Ralston, as speaker, to put his name on a bill.

The 74-page measure is the result of recommendations from the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, which developed more than 50 recommendations to change Georgia’s laws. Many of the proposals will require funding, but Ralston said he could not yet say how much it would cost the state.

Gov. Brian Kemp has also put his support behind the legislation.

ExploreBill aims to strengthen mental health care in Georgia

“No matter where we travel across the state, (first lady) Marty (Kemp) and I hear about how the pandemic has further exacerbated these needs, and we are confident that reforms included in this legislative package will create a lasting, positive impact across our state,” Kemp said in a statement.

During a budget presentation to legislators last week, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald highlighted recent spikes in overdose deaths and suicides in rural parts of the state. The agency is tasked with caring for people with serious and persistent mental illness, issues with substance abuse, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

From April 2020 to April 2021 there were 2,036 overdose deaths, an increase of 36% from the previous year. Between 2019 and 2020, suicides across the state decreased, but rural suicides rose by about 8%. The agency’s Georgia Crisis and Access Line saw a 24% increase in calls, texts and chats from Georgians looking for someone to talk to.

And as of this month, the agency had lost 1,096 of the 3,837 employees it had two years earlier. That shortfall meant 185 beds at psychiatric hospitals couldn’t be filled because of the lack of staffing, Fitzgerald said.

“There is no issue — and I want to be very clear — there is no issue this session more important to me than this issue,” Ralston said. “I am tired of telling desperate, hurting families that we have no treatment options available in Georgia. I am tired of looking in the faces of mothers who have lost a child because they saw no hope, and I’m tired of seeing the faces of those whose spiral downward has been fed by substance abuse.”

Georgia ranks low nationally on most measurements of mental health treatment while it ranks 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 dead 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.

Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said while she was pleased with the overall bill, her organization wants to make sure that Ralston’s proposed regulations involving involuntary commitment don’t become misused.

HB 1013 would allow community-based organizations to identify to a probate court people who should be involuntarily committed for mental health care.

“There are people like us who are people in recovery who are closely watching ‘assisted outpatient treatment,’ ” Campbell said. “We’re following that really closely because we want to make sure it doesn’t just widen the net and then get more and more people into the criminal justice system.”

A spokesman with the Treatment Advocacy Center told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that involuntary commitment is a civil process that has a goal of avoiding putting those with mental health issues in the criminal justice system.