(The Center Square) – House Speaker David Ralston introduced a bill Wednesday to increase access to mental health care in Georgia and strengthen the behavioral care workforce.
Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said mental health is the most important issue to him this year. House Bill 1013 reportedly is only the second bill he has proposed while leading the Georgia House.
“Our mental health care delivery system has been inadequate,” Ralston said Wednesday during a news conference at the state Capitol. “The accessibility and availability of treatment has been woefully limited.”
The legislation was developed from recommendations by the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission. The group was comprised of legislators, judges, mental health practitioners and advocates. The commission recommended implementing early and preventative care, addressing state parity and workforce shortages and removing barriers to care.
HB 1013 will make mental health care just as important as physical health, addressing parity. A compliance officer will be employed to ensure the best quality of service for patients. It would increase wages and create loan forgiveness programs for mental health care professionals.
The measure would streamline a patient’s point of contact between physicians and insurance companies. It also would create diversion programs for nonviolent offenders.
“The bill is a giant leap forward, and it will create solutions for many of the gaps we face and our mental health systems,” said former state Rep. Kevin Tanner, who led the commission.
HB 1013 is expected to get bipartisan support as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are sponsoring the measure.
“I am excited to work on a comprehensive bill of reform for Georgia families,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Too many Georgians suffer from mental illness, which can be deadly and cannot find treatment. We need to improve ways to help people find treatment.”
Ralston said other “vital” mental health needs would be addressed through the state budget. Appropriation leaders are discussing their plans for spending in fiscal year 2023 and considering changes to fiscal year 2022, which ends June 30. Ralston could not provide the total amount that would be added to the budget for mental health, but he said he is hoping for the max.
“I’m committed to funding,” Ralston said. “Obviously, my goal is to do 100%. I’ll take a big chunk of that.”
Gov. Brian Kemp’s current budget proposal recommends spending an additional $21 million on behavioral health and substance care and program in fiscal 2023.
Lawmakers added $56 million for behavioral health spending in fiscal 2022 last legislation session after cutting state agency budgets, including behavioral health services, in fiscal 2020 and 2021.