Georgia House delivers overwhelming support for mental health services overhaul

By: - March 8, 2022 8:11 pm

House Speaker David Ralston, South Forsyth Republican Rep. Todd Jones, and Decatur Democratic Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver talk to reporters after the speaker’s mental health bill cleared the House Tuesday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A measure designed to improve access to mental health services in Georgia cleared the House with overwhelming bipartisan support Tuesday.

That may not be too surprising, considering the bill’s lead sponsor is the chamber’s top leader, Speaker David Ralston. But the bill’s sponsors have proposed changes they hope will also clear the state Senate, and Ralston put his political muscle into seeing the bill become law.

“If this is not worth the political capital, I’m not sure what will ever be,” Ralston told his colleagues Tuesday.

It’s unusual to see the speaker sponsor a bill beyond state budgets. And while the legislative process is often an exercise in horse trading between the two chambers, Ralston said Tuesday he hoped the bill would be spared any nitpicking in the Senate. 

Still, changes are likely in the Senate. The Senate has already passed a couple of alternative measures, including one bill with a different take on how best to ensure health insurers are treating behavioral health benefits the same as physical care as required by federal law. A lobbyist for health insurers told lawmakers they oppose the House version.

“Reasonable compromise is always part of the process here,” Ralston told reporters Tuesday. “But what I’m not going to do is to cave to those who are going to put monied interest ahead of the wellbeing of many Georgians. This is something that we have needed to have done for a long time, and we’re going to insist that it be done.”

Advocates and others have rallied primarily behind the behavioral health parity provision in the measure. But the wide-ranging bill also creates a service cancelable loan program to help bolster the workforce, changes the criteria for having someone involuntarily committed for treatment, and ensures a certain percentage of money in public-funded insurance programs goes to patient care and not administrative costs.

The measure has drawn privacy concerns over an adult registry proposed with a court-ordered treatment program within the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. Some critics have also cautioned the changes could lead to high hospitalization rates.

From the start, supporters – including Ralston – have framed the proposal as a starting point in a multi-year effort to lift the state from near the bottom of rankings for mental health access.

“Our challenge today should not be can we cure mental illness? Can we cure substance abuse?” said South Forsyth Republican state Rep. Todd Jones, who co-sponsored the bill and who has spoken publicly about his own struggles to get help for his son.

“Rather, our challenge is can we at least start? Can we give them a ‘start here’ button? Can we at least give them hope?” he said.

Still, longtime state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, called the overhaul a “game changer” that could prove transformative.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who is the bill’s other lead co-sponsor, said there is a small percentage of people with severe mental illness who are repeatedly cycling in and out of crisis services.  

“It is the 1%, who come in and out of our hospitals, in and out of our jails, in and out of our emergency rooms, who are taxing the system every single day, and for whom I hope that this bill will provide the most meaningful relief,” Oliver said.

The bill cleared the House with a 169-3 vote with just a few Republican lawmakers voting against it.

“I would like everyone to please take one moment to consider the painful irony of us in this body working to find a government solution that implements greater government control in order to solve a problem that is largely the result of government control and policies,” said one of the opponents, Sharpsburg Republican Rep. Philip Singleton, referring partly to COVID-19 restrictions. 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.