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Georgia House starts work on comprehensive mental health bill
state capitol
Georgia state capitol. - photo by For the Dawson County News

by Dave Williams | Capitol Beat News Service

Bipartisan legislation aimed at improving the delivery of mental health and substance abuse services in Georgia got its first hearing in the General Assembly Wednesday.

The 75-page Mental Health Parity Act would require health insurance companies to treat mental illness in the same way they treat physical illness. The parity provision also would apply to Georgia’s Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids programs and to the State Health Benefit Plan for Georgia teachers and state employees.

“If you’re covering physical, you’ve got to cover mental,” state Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, one of the bill’s cosponsors, told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

The legislation, a major priority of House Speaker David Ralston, also would require care management organizations (CMOs) participating in Georgia Medicaid to dedicate at least 85% of their revenues to patient care.

And the bill contains a workforce development component in the form of a service-cancelable loan program aimed at recruiting mental health and substance abuse workers. The initiative is expected to cost $8 million to $10 million.

“Our biggest issue is workforce,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, another one of the bill’s cosponsors and a member of a commission formed in 2019 that included mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice experts. “Workforce issues are critical all across Georgia.”

The state has a long way to go to improve its mental health and substance abuse care system. In 2019, Georgia ranked 48th in access to mental health and substance abuse services.

”This is an opportunity for Georgia to pick up … and hopefully leap into the top five,” Jones said.

A key reality holding Georgia back is that many people with mental illness or substance abuse issues are behind bars rather than in treatment facilities.

“We’ve criminalized mental illness,” said LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, also a member of the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission. “The largest mental health facility in each county is the county jail.”

The bill drew strong support Wednesday from many mental health- and substance abuse-care advocates, particularly the parity provision that gives the legislation its name.

“Lack of parity leads to insurance companies denying coverage, long waiting lines, [patients] not receiving early treatment and families paying out of pocket,” said Helen Robinson, associate director of public policy at The Carter Center’s Georgia Health Parity Collaborative.

But others objected to a provision in the bill that would make it easier for police officers to forcibly take into custody a person in mental health crisis who has not committed a crime.

Another sticking point was over a registry the bill would create as a database to give mental health professionals a better idea of where to target services. Some speakers raised concerns the registry could invade patients’ privacy and subject them to the stigma associated with mental illness.

But committee Chairman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, said the heart of the bill would address that issue

“If we do nothing else … passing parity will help decrease the stigma,” she said. “We as a legislature will be saying, ‘Having mental illness is no different from having a medical illness.’ “

Cooper said lawmakers will work on incorporating some of the changes in the bill advocates have suggested and return with a new version of the legislation as early as next week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.