Georgia senators weaken mental health bill parity rules, remove WHO mentions

‘Don’t give up hope,’ House health leader tells advocates

By: - March 29, 2022 3:00 am

A group of advocates who support the House’s sweeping mental health bill rallied outside the state Capitol Monday after opponents swarmed a series of hearings last week. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A Senate panel has scaled back a sweeping mental health proposal following loud opposition from conservative activists.

A revised version of the plan unveiled Monday backed away from changes to the state’s involuntary commitment criteria and softened a proposal to require health insurers to treat behavioral health benefits the same as physical care.

Gone are also references to the World Health Organization and its definitions for mental health conditions, which was a source of contention among the conservative activists. 

The bill, led by House Speaker David Ralston, advanced out of a Senate committee with a unanimous vote Monday, just one week before the curtain will fall on this year’s legislative session. It could be ready for a full Senate vote later this week.

A Senate panel unanimously backed a mental health bill Monday, potentially teeing it up for a vote by the full Senate later this week. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The proposal still features many of the bill’s original components, such as a service cancelable loan program designed to help grow the state’s behavioral health workforce in underserved areas of the state and requirements that a certain percentage of money in public-funded insurance programs goes to patient care and not administrative costs.

It also now includes a House Democrats’ bill that would step up mental health training for law enforcement.

Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican whose opposition to the bill helped ignite public pushback, told supporters in a packed room Monday that the changes addressed many of his concerns, though he stopped short of saying he could vote for it.

“I have legitimate disagreements with some of my colleagues on whether we should even touch this to begin with,” Singleton said. “But what I wanted you guys to know is the committee substitute that I read has made serious improvements to the stuff that we were most concerned about.”

Ralston has called the bill his top priority for the year. His spokesman said Monday that the speaker’s office was reviewing the Senate’s work with experts and advocates but was pleased the bill was still on the move.

But changes to the behavioral health parity provision have already sparked concerns among the broad coalition of advocates and others who have rallied behind the bill, particularly the proposed aggressive enforcement of a 14-year-old federal parity law. 

Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said he was troubled by a change that would let insurers define the standards for medical necessity when it comes to parity.

“Our concern is that the Senate not allow the fox to guard the henhouse,” Breedlove said.

Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, questioned whether this change “weakens the original intent of the parity section of the bill itself.”

The proposal also no longer requires health insurers to provide behavioral health benefits if they do not currently offer them, and Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican, said it now includes exemptions from the parity mandate for religious, short-term, and direct primary care policies.

A mix of opponents and supporters of the speaker’s proposed mental health reforms has been packing a Senate committee room. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Watson, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, told reporters he believed these changes still left the parity provision intact while also, for example, trying to keep prices in check for a short-term policy in between jobs.

“Do I think that’s going to satisfy everybody? No, I do not. But you have to do what’s right, and I think that we have done that,” he said.

More changes are likely once the bill leaves the Senate. Shortly before the new version of the bill was presented in committee, Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, rallied supporters of the bill on the state Capitol steps.

“It’s really a shame that some people see ghosts and haints around every corner and have picked out little pieces of the bill and put out a lot of misinformation about the bill,” Cooper said.

“Don’t give up hope,” Cooper told the advocates. “I don’t ever want you to give up about care and about the state doing the right thing for you.” 

The bill cleared the House with overwhelming approval but was met with loud pushback by conservative activists who claimed the bill protected pedophiles and could morph into red flag gun laws.

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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.

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