As a symbolic show of support, House Speaker David Ralston is the first signer on a wide-ranging mental health bill introduced Wednesday. He said no issue is more important to him this year. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by the highest-ranking Republican in the House unveiled a proposal Wednesday designed to begin the work of lifting Georgia from near the bottom when it comes to access to mental health treatment.
House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told a large crowd assembled at the state Capitol that he envisioned the measure as the beginning of a commitment to remake the state’s mental health system.
“For much too long, our mental health care delivery system has been inadequate,” Ralston said. “The accessibility and availability of treatment has been woefully limited. For a state that is rated the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business, that is unacceptable. We cannot expect to keep doing what we have been doing and expect a better result.”
Georgia ranks 48th when it comes to access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America.
The wide-ranging bill introduced Wednesday steps up enforcement of a 14-year-old federal law requiring health insurers to provide mental health and substance use benefits that are on par with physical care. It also creates a service cancelable loan program for mental health and substance abuse professionals in hopes of boosting the workforce and makes way for more court-ordered outpatient-based treatment.
Several of the provisions packed into the legislation require funding to become a reality. Ralston’s spokesman said Wednesday that budget analysts were still calculating the cost to fully fund the measure.
Ralston said Wednesday he intends to at least fund a “big chunk” of the proposal in the budget year that starts this July. Surging revenues have left the state sitting on a record budget surplus.
But advocates have rallied behind a proposal that would ramp up state enforcement of the federal parity law, which they argue would save the state money in the long run.
The bill would require private health insurers and Medicaid providers to share information showing their benefits for mental health and substance use disorder treatments were not more restrictive than physical care, like treatment for a broken arm. Funding is requested for a new state mental health parity officer.
“They can expect to treat mental health care just the same as they treat physical health care. It is way past time they did that,” Ralston said to applause from those gathered at the state Capitol.
John King, the state insurance commissioner, stood with Ralston as he announced the proposal tapping his office to beef up his enforcement of parity. King is running for election this year after being appointed to the role in 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp when former Commissioner Jim Beck was indicted for stealing from his employer.
“We are having those discussions with the carriers, so they understand that this freight train is coming,” King said after the press conference. “Our speaker, our governor, everybody’s getting behind this, and it’s important for everybody.
“If they want to operate and continue having the great success of that – none of these carriers are hurting. This is how they give back to our state and the community,” he said.
‘A significant down payment’
As a symbolic show of support, Ralston is the bill’s first signer. As speaker, Ralston’s portfolio of bills is usually limited to the budget and local legislation specific to his district. He stressed Wednesday that no issue was more important to him this year.
“I am tired of telling desperate, hurting families that we have no treatment options available in Georgia. I’m 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,” Ralston said.
“Georgia is a great state. Passage of this landmark deal will also mean we are a good state,” he added.
The bill’s co-sponsors hail from both parties – South Forsyth Republican state Rep. Todd Jones and Decatur Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver – in a move reminiscent of some of the other high-profile bills that have passed in recent sessions, such as 2020’s hate crimes bill.
Jones, who has been public about his son’s mental health struggles, says his goal is unanimous passage, at least in the House. It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday if anyone had qualms with the bill, but it’s early in the process.
Kevin Tanner, a former GOP state representative who is now the county administrator in Forsyth County, leads the reform-minded commission that pushed forward many of the bill’s recommendations. The commission was created by the Legislature in 2019 and would be renewed through 2025.
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Tanner said the commission members have been sensitive to civil liberty concerns while discussing ways to bring a court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment program to Georgia communities.
He said the program would be like an accountability court “on steroids” and would include people in recovery, known as peers. The panel has proposed starting with pilot programs funded through grants.
“A lot of it’s about accountability,” Tanner said. “But it’s really also about the wraparound services. Because these folks are suffering and their families want them to get better, want them to be able to stay out of crisis, but they just don’t have the resources. This will provide that.”
Wednesday’s announcement was celebrated by mental health and recovery advocates.
“This bill that we’re seeing is a significant down payment on the work that needs to be done to get Georgians the behavioral health care that they’re entitled to,” said Roland Behm, a volunteer with the Georgia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
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