Georgia House passes broad changes to mental health programs

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s support for House Bill 1013 has powered it through the House, and on Tuesday, March 8, 2022, he urged the Senate not to “nitpick” it.

David Goldman / Associated Press

Georgia’s House of Representatives on Tuesday pushed forward a broad set of changes to the state’s lagging mental health system, with one sponsor pledging that “we are actually going to make a difference.”

House Bill 1013 passed 169-3, moving on to the state Senate for more debate.

“We have the ability to at least make a material change and possibly a true solution,” said Rep. Todd Jones, a Cumming Republican.

The measure seeks to require that insurers pay for mental health care the same way they pay for physical illness, with requirements for insurance regulators to monitor compliance. The bill would make it easier to take someone into care without their consent and provide forgivable loans for people who become mental health workers.

Georgia ranks 48th when it comes to access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America.

“We are losing the battle for the future to hopelessness and despair,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said of current conditions. Ralston’s support for the measure has powered it through the House, and on Tuesday he urged the Senate not to “nitpick” it.

“I hope they will appreciate that much is at stake…,” Ralston said of senators. “Lives are at stake with this bill.”

The requirement for mental health insurance parity has long been law, but officials say insurers still are not obeying.

“Parity is the most important principle that we have been discussing nationally for over 20 years,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat.

The measure would relax Georgia’s standard for involuntary commitment. Now a police officer or crisis worker can’t take someone against their will unless there is a danger of “imminently life-endangering crisis.” The new bill would instead allow someone to be taken in if an officer or worker has “a reasonable expectation” that “significant psychiatric deterioration will occur in the near future.”

The measure would also create a pilot program of “assisted outpatient treatment,” a form of involuntary outpatient care aimed at people who had been hospitalized or jailed for mental illness within the last three years, who have a deteriorating condition and who are not voluntarily participating in treatment.

Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican, was among the few opponents, warning that it could drive up health insurance costs, let “the medical bureaucratic class” make harmful decisions and force churches to pay insurers to provide treatment for morally objectionable conditions such as gender dysphoria. He also warned about who could be locked up under loosened involuntary commitment.

“This essentially allows the state to lock them up over and over again, as the state sees fit, for the rest of their lives,” Singleton said.

The bill is projected to cost $29 million, including an expansion of grants for transportation, crisis teams and other services. Among that amount would be $10 million to pay off loans for people who become mental health workers.

“We are expanding opportunity for mental health services to be delivered in rural and underserved areas in a meaningful way,” Oliver said.

The measure would also direct a state government office to create a unified list of prescription drugs for mental health conditions for which Medicaid, the PeachCare insurance program for children and the state health benefit plan would pay.

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