Ga. House Speaker Ralston says 'No issue is more important to me this session than mental health'
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston unveils his omnibus bill targeting mental health reform during a press conference at the Capitol on Jan. 26, 2022. Credit: Riley Bunch / GPB News
Kicking off Mental Health Day at the state Capitol, House Speaker David Ralston announced that he filed the much-anticipated omnibus bill designed to increase access to mental health care for all Georgians.
HB 1013 is the result of years of advocacy work by the Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership, which represents 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 the Georgia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
These are the Georgians with lived experience, said the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse's Jeff Breedlove.
Gov. Brian Kemp and 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.
"This commission was a bipartisan group consisting of legislators, mental health professionals, judges, law enforcement and others," Ralston said Wednesday. "Their charge was to be bold and innovative."
The bill addresses parity in insurance by allowing the state commissioner of insurance more power to enforce the federal act.
Parity means behavioral health challenges such as depression or substance use disorder are covered equally by insurance as physical issues. For example, few people worry their insurance won't cover a broken arm twice in one year, but they may be arbitrarily denied coverage for drug and alcohol detoxification and rehabilitation.
Ralston reiterated that mental health reform and expanding access to services is the most important issue to him this legislative session.
"I am tired of telling desperate and hurting families that we have no treatment options available in Georgia," Ralston said. "I am 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."
Anxiety, depression and substance use disorder are on the rise in Georgia, said Judy Fitzgerald, Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities .
While a proposed $7 million in new state funding to face the problem is good news, she said, sometimes a crisis can be averted.
"Sometimes a person just needs someone to talk [to], talk them through [a crisis]," Fitzgerald said. "They need to eat something; maybe they need to take a shower, just settle down. And then actually they're able to leave the facility with a referral to an outpatient provider."
The DBHDD opened two new crisis stabilization units during the COVID-19 pandemic and now the state agency has a total of 533 adult beds and 74 youth beds.
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The Reform and Innovation Commission is chaired by former state Rep. Kevin Tanner of Dawson County, who calls HB 1013 a giant leap forward.
"It will create solutions for many of the gaps we face in our mental health systems," Tanner said.
One of those solutions is the hiring and funding of a parity coordinator who can track data and develop a method to regulate parity across the state. Representatives are asking for at least $150,000 for this purpose.
"A compliance officer funded through the state will ensure the best quality of service for patients," Tanner said. "We will strengthen the mental health workforce through better wages, loan forgiveness programs and the ability to fully practice to the extent of their license."
Streamlining patients' points of contact between physicians and insurance companies will ensure patients always come first, he said.
"Diversion programs will be created so nonviolent offenders can stay out of the criminal justice system," Tanner said. "All of these common sense measures will make a real difference in the lives of Georgians."
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