By Zoe Seiler, Decaturish
Atlanta, GA — Clapping and cheering could be heard in the Georgia General Assembly on March 30 as lawmakers passed the Mental Health Parity Act, which aims to improve mental health services in the state.
House Bill 1013 passed the Senate with a unanimous vote.
“This is a great day for Georgia and [Wednesday’s] passage of House Bill 1013 represents our state’s commitment to removing obstacles that many Georgians face when assessing their mental health care,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said.
The bill passed the state House of Representatives on March 8. The chamber also agreed to and passed the Senate substitute on Wednesday with a unanimous vote.
“This is the second time in my six sessions that I’m speechless.The other time was when I was first presenting the bill with Chairman Oliver,” said Rep. Todd Jones (R-South Forsyth), who was one of the bill sponsors. “We can say emphatically that, upon passage of this and the signing by the governor, that the state of Georgia has parity.”
Speaker of the House David Ralston and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) were among the many sponsors of the bill.
“Speaker Ralston’s HB 1013 passed the Senate this afternoon with a unanimous vote to bring significant reforms to Georgia’s mental health system,” Oliver told Decaturish. “The bill is 76 pages and provides new parity provisions, cancelable education loans for those serving needy areas, enforcement of MLR Medical Loss Ratio, creation of law enforcement mental health units and outpatient oversight—plus more. The final agreement reached represents bipartisan legislative teams led by Chair Todd Jones and me. [Hundreds] of hours of work, and it was a privilege to participate.”
During this year’s legislative session, Ralston made the Mental Health Parity Act his top priority. He became emotional during his remarks after announcing that the bill had been passed with overwhelming support from both chambers.
“Today, hope won. We have set Georgia on a path to lifting up and reforming a failed mental health care system,” Ralston said after the vote on March 30. “Chairman Mary Margaret Oliver and Chairman Todd Jones have, through their work, enabled me to see something I have not seen like this before. I saw an R and a D disappear and a Georgia take its place.”
The Senate substitute to the bill softened a proposal in the legislation to require health insurers to treat behavioral health benefits the same as physical care and lessened the changes to Georgia’s involuntary commitment criteria. The bill also no longer references the World Health Organization and its definitions for mental health conditions, the Georgia Recorder reported.
“Together with House Bill 1013, we have brought a bill that every single person that we heard from can be proud of,” Sen. Brian Strickland (SD-17). “The bill has many, many parts.”
Strickland, a senator from McDonough, carried the bill through the Senate.
The first part of the bill ensures that the state is enforcing its parity law regarding mental health treatment. It also codifies that those on Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids receive coverage for mental health and substance use disorders that they should be receiving under federal law.
HB 1013 creates service cancelable loan program to help bolster the workforce providing behavioral health services.
“Under part two, we acknowledge the fact that we can have all the coverage in the world for mental health in our state, but if we don’t have the workforce where this service is being offered in every corner of our state, we’re still not accomplishing anything,” Strickland said.
The bill addresses involuntary commitment. It codifies the assistant outpatient treatment program and establishes a grant process to keep this program operating through the state Department of Public Health.
The legislation allows police officers or a mobile crisis team to take an individual in for an emergency examination and establishes mental health training for law enforcement. The legislation also ensures that a certain percentage of money in public-funded health insurance programs goes to patient care rather than administrative costs, according to the Georgia Recorder.
“I’ll acknowledge that House Bill 1013 doesn’t solve our mental health crisis,” Strickland said. “Many parts of the is bill are long term investments that will require much more work in the years to come. But together with the passage of House Bill 1013 we’ll start the process of making Georgia not only the best state in the country for business, but the best state in the country for mental health services.”
Currently, Georgia ranks last in the country when it comes to access to mental health services, Sen. Michelle Au (SD-48) said. She said the state can and must do better and called HB 1013 “transformative” and “a framework for continued work that needs to be done.”
“Above all, it is a moral document. HB 1013 is a bipartisan commitment to the people of Georgia that we recognize care for mental health and substance use disorder is as essential as treatment for medical and surgical care,” Au said. “It’s a recognition that we can and will do better, and it’s an acknowledgement that this bill, while significant, is just the first step in our commitment to the work that lies ahead.”