For The Record

Lawmakers drop controversial child registry from proposed mental health bill

By: - February 23, 2022 5:27 pm

The proposal seeks to lift Georgia from near last in rankings sizing up access to mental health treatment and gained momentum after the COVID-19 revealed gaps in the state’s behavioral health system. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder (2022 file photo)

A proposed database of children with frequent encounters with the state’s crisis services has been dropped from a wide-ranging mental health bill.

The creation of a pediatric registry was one of the provisions raising concerns about a bill sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston, who has called the measure his top priority for the session.

Much of the now 75-page bill remains intact even as debates continue over proposals to loosen criteria to have someone involuntarily committed for treatment, encouraging more court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment programs across the state, and requiring insurers to provide behavioral health benefits that are on par with physical care.

“The pediatric registry is something we’re going to continue to look at it,” Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, said Wednesday. “It is an issue. The ‘frequent flyer child’ is an issue coming in and out of the ER. We’re not done with it.”

Oliver said she is particularly concerned about the thousands of children in foster care who have experienced significant trauma at a young age. It’s a concern shared with her colleagues.  

“The earlier the detection the better, whether it’s autism, any syndromes that we see,” said state Rep. Karen Mathiak, a Griffin Republican. “So, I agree in protecting children because we don’t want them to be labeled, but I don’t want them getting lost in the system either.”

The proposal would, however, still create an adult registry within assisted outpatient programs across the state, which is a form of involuntary care.

The bill tasks the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities with creating a database of people with behavioral health issues with “high utilization of services” or other troubling patterns of behavior.

Patient advocates have warned the bill could lead to the highest hospitalization rates in decades.

A House panel continued to collect feedback on the bill Wednesday but did not vote. Oliver said afterward she hopes to see the bill advance in the coming week. Crossover Day, when one bill must clear at least one chamber to have a clear path to becoming law, is less than a month away.

The proposal seeks to lift Georgia from near last in rankings sizing up access to mental health treatment and gained momentum after the COVID-19 revealed gaps in the state’s behavioral health system.

“We are here in an effort to make Georgia a top-ranking state for mental health,” said Kim Jones, director of NAMI Georgia. “Our goal is to go from ranking 48th in the United States to being in the top tier for mental health.”

Jones, who serves on a reform-minded commission formed in 2019, told lawmakers Wednesday the measure is the culmination of the “delicate compromise and negotiations” among advocates and others who have backed the bill. 

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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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