Passed Georgia mental health parity bill aims to improve care and access

Standing ovation as the Georgia House unanimously passes sweeping mental health reform. Georgia currently ranks among the worst for mental health access in the country. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

State lawmakers have passed a sweeping overhaul of Georgia’s mental health system. The House Speaker David Ralston-backed bill makes a host of major changes, including a requirement that all health insurance plans cover mental health conditions as they do physical ones. Now, addiction and mental health advocates who’ve been working on the bill for years are cheering its passage.

On Tuesday, lawmakers’ late-night negotiations resulted in language that dramatically improves access to mental health services across the state, says Jeff Breedlove, with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

“It’s so simplistic, just writing the definitions,” he says. “But that sets the foundation for every decision made about care and coverage.”

The bill writes into Georgia law evidence-based, nationally recognized protocols for addiction and mental health treatment. It requires insurance companies to track and report on compliance with the law. And guidelines put providers and patients at the center of treatment decisions.

Kim Jones heads up Georgia’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says the bill also provides more accountability to patients and their families. 

“They don’t want their loved ones to have died in vain, so they’re sharing their story with the legislators to explain why parity is so important,” she says, “and why it’s important that we keep this work going for the next several years.”

Lawmakers and advocates agree that passage of the bill is a big first step. 

But they say more needs to be done to make sure Georgia is no longer at the bottom in the nation when it comes to mental health treatment and access. 

There’s a shortage of providers in many parts of Georgia and the bill tries to help by including a student loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals in high-need areas.