Georgia Senate unveils new mental health bill at late hour

The Georgia Senate Health and Human Services Committee didn’t take a vote on a mental health reform bill and didn’t schedule another meeting before a Thursday deadline for bills to advance out of Senate committees.

Jason Getz / Associated Press file

An effort to make more changes to Georgia’s mental health system could stall in the closing days of the 2023 legislative session even though a Senate committee on Wednesday unveiled a rewritten bill that House sponsors and advocates found broadly acceptable.

That’s because the Senate Health and Human Services Committee didn’t take a vote on House Bill 520 and didn’t schedule another meeting before a Thursday deadline for bills to advance out of Senate committees.

Committee Chairman Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican, said that means a two-thirds vote of the Senate would be required to set aside normal rules and vote on the bill after the deadline. When asked whether he would seek that move, Watson said “That’s probably not my question to answer.”

That’s an apparent reference to Senate Republican leaders who on Wednesday escalated a dispute with the House over hospital permitting, threatening end-of-session talks on the budget, mental health and other issues. The session is scheduled to end next Wednesday.

House Speaker Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, has made further changes to mental health a top priority, a year after then-speaker David Ralston pushed through an overhaul in the last session before he died.

The plan is aimed at recruiting more mental health workers, helping people who bounce between hospitals, jails and homelessness, and studying other needs.

The Senate bill, although rewritten, kept many of those goals. It removed sections that would have barred insurers from withholding certain drugs and that would have mandated a housing plan for certain mentally ill homeless people, even if potential tenants had criminal records that might normally cause landlords to refuse to house them.

“We’ve reduced a lot of redundancies,” Watson said of the new bill during the meeting. “We have tried to make it clear. We have left things out when we did not feel as if we needed to tackle that at this particular moment.”

Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat and House co-sponsor, said immediately after the meeting that more House-Senate talks were needed, and that the bill was workable.

But Senate support remains uncertain. A spokesperson for Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones criticized the form in which the measure came over from the House even after the committee met Wednesday, including a claim that the bill expanded Medicaid, which Watson refuted during the meeting.

“HB 520 came with a $71 million annual price tag that was not addressed until it crossed over to the Senate chamber,” spokesperson Ines Owen said in a statement. “That cost, plus the limited Medicaid expansion in the initial bill have major implications on the state and need more time to be fully evaluated.”

Some conservative Republicans had claimed that the bill improperly expanded the ability to involuntarily commit people to mental health care, that a data-sharing mandate would lead to private data being exposed, and that backers could financially benefit from the measure. Watson sought to knock down all those claims as false.

“All state and federal privacy laws will be followed,” Watson pledged, saying data would only have demographic information. “No names, no personal information, nothing.”

Opponents were unpersuaded, saying they didn’t trust government to provide care and safely handle data, and saying it was unfair for state government to forgive student loans of mental health care workers.

“Most of these fixes are Democrat Party ideas,” said Brett Chromy. “Medicaid expansion, loan forgiveness, these are not part of the Republican Party platform.” Supporters say finding mental health solutions is a multiyear process. Many parts of the bill would require studies aimed at easing long-term problems.

The bill would try to add more workers by forgiving student loans for nurses and others already in the health care field, atop the loan forgiveness granted to current students in last year’s law. It could ease Georgia training and licensing requirements for workers trained in other states and countries.

Last year’s measure pushed private insurers to abide by long-existing federal requirements to provide the same level of benefits for mental health disorders as they do for physical illness. The law also allowed police officers to take someone they believe is in need of mental health treatment to an emergency facility for evaluation.

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