While a sweeping bill to increase Georgians’ access to mental health care and addiction treatment has passed both the state House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature , Northwestern Georgia attorneys said the legislation was much needed and would greatly benefit residents of the Peach State.
House Bill 1013 passed the House with three null votes on March 8. On Wednesday, it passed the Senate unanimously with amendments, and then the amended bill passed the House unanimously.
The bill would provide loan forgiveness to keep more medical professionals in Georgia and also enforce parity — a federal law that requires insurance companies to treat mental health like all other medical conditions.
“The #1 issue in the bill that really brought us to the table is parity. Parity is a 14-year-old federal law that has simply never been enforced by the state of Georgia,” said Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said in a telephone interview.
Breedlove said the bill is the product of a two-year process led by a broad coalition of mental health organizations, recovery organizations, the Georgia Medical Association, sheriffs, police chiefs, hospitals and nurses. The bill was sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
Breedlove said Georgia consistently ranks poorly for mental health services, and this is a foundational piece of legislation for transformational change. If the state of Georgia enforces federal law, Breedlove said, $200 million to $300 million would be made available by insurance companies to help pay for new mental health and addiction services.
Many final details were ironed out at the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week after four meetings and many moving testimonies. The Senate committee added medical professionals to the list who would be eligible for a loan forgiveness program to work in underserved areas.
Supporters wanted more resources given to the state’s mental health care system, which is consistently ranked as one of the worst in the country, while the limited opposition feared greater government intervention in health care and threats to civil liberties.
“There are counties in northwest Georgia that don’t have access to services,” mental health care advocate Bonnie Moore said in a phone interview. “They have to go to another county because again it has to do with funding because community service boards can’t put a [mental health care] center in each county.
The state’s 23 Community Service Boards provide mental health, addictive illness, and developmental disability services to uninsured Georgians. Moore said there aren’t enough nurse practitioners and psychiatrists in rural Georgia.
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Moore is president of the Rome chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides support, education and advocacy for people struggling with mental health and addictions issues, although she said that she was not speaking on behalf of the organization.
During the committee hearing, Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, was concerned that the language of the bill would allow private insurance companies to determine which treatment was a medical necessity. Committee chairman Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, said this could be bolstered by new legislation later if needed.
Mental health care advocates feared the updated bill would add exemptions to the parity mandate for some policies and also no longer require insurers to provide mental health and addiction benefits if they don’t. not already offering them.
The new Senate version of the bill added primary care physicians to medical professionals who may be eligible to have their student loans forgiven in exchange for working in underserved areas. That part of the bill was expected to cost $10.3 million a year, Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said during the hearing, but that figure did not include adding primary care physicians to this list.
“In my mind, labor is the critical issue we need to address, and if it’s $10 million a year that we need to spend on it for adequate coverage, I’m willing to recommend it,” he said. said the vice president. Sen. Dean Burke, R-Savannah, adding that the bill should be updated with the additional costs.
The Senate committee also added a provision that would provide mental health training to law enforcement officers. The bill gives officers the power to refer people for a mental health evaluation, but that’s separate from a hearing before a probate judge that could lead to restricted gun rights, pointed out. committee members.
After the committee voted, Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, an outspoken critic of the bill, described the changes to a Capitol crowd in an online video. He is one of three members of the House who voted against the bill before it reached the Senate.
Northwestern Georgia Representatives Mike Cameron, R-Rossville, Dewayne Hill, R-Ringgold, Steven Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, Jason Ridley, R-Chatsworth and Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton all voted for the project of law.
Singleton said he was against mandates and doesn’t think the government should get involved in health care at all, but thinks “serious improvements” have been made to the bill. The civil liberties portion of the bill — what Singleton said he was most worried about — was deleted in Senate updates, he said.
Later on social media, he wrote that under the previous version of the bill, someone could be “locked up against their will with nothing more than a reasonable belief that they might need treatment for mental health in the near future”.
The bill still allows law enforcement to take people to an emergency residential facility if officers have probable cause to believe the person has a mental illness and is in need of involuntary treatment. This can only be done, according to the bill, after seeing a doctor in person or through a telehealth portal, and the involuntary restraint can be up to three days. A judge must determine a longer wait. As is currently the case, law enforcement can detain people who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Moore, Rome’s mental health advocate, leads crisis intervention training for police, teaching officers how to identify and manage mental illness when responding to calls. She said it’s a tool law enforcement needs and believes it won’t be abused.
Breedlove, with the addictions council, said the bill is the first step in a multi-bill process to reform mental health care treatment in Georgia, including giving the forces of the order more options rather than just taking people to jail.
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“The biggest provider of mental health care in any county or state, practically speaking, is prisons. And that’s a tragic shame,” Breedlove said.
About 800,000 Georgians are recovering from drug addiction, he said, and more than a million Georgians have been diagnosed with mental health issues, he said.
More funding for mental health courts is also in the bill, but Moore said advocates want a program that will provide support and guidance before a crime is committed. Moore said the bill would fund a study in multiple jurisdictions to determine if assisted outpatient treatment is effective. A similar program is in place, but Moore said she advocates for a standardized system.
Currently, Moore said, if law enforcement determines that someone in northwest Georgia is threatening violence or self-harm, the nearest crisis center will found in Rome. The bill should provide funding for new facilities and more training for law enforcement when encountering people in crisis, Moore said.
Breedlove said he thinks a good balance has been struck in the bill.
“The big point is there’s a cultural shift within law enforcement in our state that now wants to be peer supported partners. They don’t want to send peers to jail if the peer needs help. ‘medical aid and has not committed a serious offence,’ he said.
Don Benson of Rome said he got involved with Georgia’s mental health care system after he was assaulted by his son, who had schizophrenia. In a phone interview, Benson said he knew his son had to be held accountable even though he suffered from mental illness, but the elder Benson also said he thought the system had failed the family because her son was already on probation and should have received mental health care. care services.
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“The Chief Justice of the Superior Court, Judge [Frank C.] Mills, heard my case, and he allowed rehabilitation rather than incarceration,” Benson said. “And that’s when I got seriously involved in our mental health care system. State, and I also studied his mental illness to see if I could contribute in any way to solving or helping people with the serious mental illness of schizophrenia.”
As a former IBM systems engineer, Benson said he was well-versed in business management and customer service, and he said learning to navigate IBM’s administrative system was difficult. State governing mental health care. At first, Benson said he had to teach himself about the mental health care system.
What helped her son stay on track, Benson said, wasn’t just clinical treatment or therapy, but also peer support — help through the process from someone. one who has experienced it.
In northwest Georgia, the Rome Group hosts the only National Alliance on Mental Illness support group for people living with mental illness and their family members who support them. Moore said people can join the meeting via teleconference rather than commuting.