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Georgia House mental health omnibus bill focuses on equal access to care for behavioral treatment

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Lawmakers in Georgia are expected to introduce an omnibus mental health bill Jan. 26, 2022, that focuses on access to care for behavioral health treatment. Credit: Stock photo

A mental health omnibus bill is expected Wednesday at the state Capitol, sponsored by Republican Rep. Todd Jones and Democrat Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver.

It’s a bill that will save lives, according to its advocates who represent more than 15 organizations including the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, The Carter Center, CHRIS 180, Georgia Parent Support Network, Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, and several associations of mental health professionals.  

Gov. Brian Kemp and state House Speaker David Ralston each appointed members to the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, which was created during the 2019 legislative session and extends through June 30, 2023.

The commission will propose major mental health reform bills for the next several years, GPB News previously reported.

Ralston again expressed support for mental health care on Tuesday’s Political Rewind, and said he would announce the bill Wednesday morning.

“This is an issue that's not Republican or Democrat,” Ralston said. “It's not urban, rural or suburban. It's not black or white. It's not rich or poor. I mean, this cuts across every strata of our society here in Georgia and everywhere. And it's also an issue I feel very passionate about.”

Jeff Breedlove with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse attended the Tuesday meeting of the newly formed Mental Health Policy Caucus.

“I know what's in the bill because we've been part of the discussions; It's been an inclusive process,” Breedlove said. “It's been a process designed to get a bill to pass, not to make a point.”

He said one of the main provisions in the bill will better enforce the Federal Parity Act of 2008 by requiring public reports that hold the state’s insurance community compliant.

He spoke at Tuesday’s policy caucus meeting about the prevalence of behavioral health challenges among Georgians, the lack of behavioral health care for many, and how the omnibus bill maps to the Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership’s Unified Vision for Transforming Mental Health and Substance Use Care in Georgia.

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“The exciting thing from our perspective is there's strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly for it, even to the extent of we're now anticipating potential unanimous votes,” Breedlove said. “There's just so much momentum behind parity and taking care of Georgia families that have been impacted during COVID.”

Another advocate with lived experience in mental health issues is Roland Behm with the Georgia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide across the state.

His son, Kyle, died by suicide eight years after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder despite raising awareness and advocating on behalf of people with suicidal ideation.

“It was Kyle's experience, Kyle's diagnosis that led me to become an advocate,” Behm said. “He was diagnosed at the beginning of 2011.”

Behm said AFSP Georgia creates a culture that’s smart about mental health through education and community programs, develops suicide prevention through research and advocacy, and provides support for those affected by suicide statewide.

More than 850,000 voting age Georgians who wanted or needed access to mental health care professionals were not able to obtain that access, he said, and now emergency room visits are increasing among adolescents planning and acting on suicidal thoughts.

While the bill doesn't address internet access specifically, one of the things that sort of may come out of left field for people is the group’s strong advocacy for statewide broadband internet access, Behm said.

“There are so many parts of Georgia, especially rural Georgia, that do not have broadband access,” he said. “As a consequence, they're not able to benefit from what we have seen, which is the rise in telehealth for behavioral health services.”

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Ellen Eldridge is a digital producer for GPB. She has previously worked as a breaking news reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The topics she most often writes about as a freelance reporter are mental health issues, crime and public safety. Ellen graduated Kennesaw State University magna cum laude in 2015 with a degree in communication focused on journalism.