House Bill 1013 soared to final passage with a 54-0 vote in the Senate and a 166-0 vote in the House.
ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers on Wednesday passed sweeping changes to the state’s ailing mental health care system after reaching an agreement between the Senate and House on language to make health insurers pay for mental health and drug treatment.
House Bill 1013 flew to final passage with a 54-0 vote in the Senate and a 166-0 vote in the House, then headed to Governor Brian Kemp’s office to his signature or his veto.
“Hope has won,” House Speaker David Ralston, who led the measure, told the House as MPs gave him a standing ovation after the vote. “Countless Georgians will know that we heard their despair and frustration. We put Georgia on the path to recovery and reform of a failing mental health care system. »
The debate over changes to mental health care has been going on for years and became a core issue of the 2022 session when Republican Speaker Blue Ridge introduced the bill. But the Senate made changes to the original House measure, including weakening language aimed at enforcing long-standing federal requirements that health insurers provide the same level of benefits for mental health disorders as for physical illnesses.
Although only a few words were changed in the latest version of the bill on Wednesday, supporters said the new wording would force insurers to follow independent standards and prevent them from deciding for themselves what they would pay.
“We have established the parity framework,” said Senate Health and Human Services, a Republican from Bainbridge. “State law will have to follow federal law, which you should have done since 2008. Everyone agrees that the state of Georgia, ranked 48th or 49th depending on how you measure us, has not had parity in mental health. health.”
Ralston was more outspoken, telling reporters his message to insurers is “Do the right thing, obey the law,” when it takes effect July 1.
The compromise maintains the current standard for a police officer involuntarily engaging someone in treatment, saying the person must show an “imminent” risk of harm to themselves or others. However, new wording allows an officer to take someone to an emergency facility for assessment after obtaining permission from a physician. Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from McDonough, said the change “strengthens” House language.
The deal also made changes to how mental health patients will be transported, leaving hospitals and not local governments responsible.
The measure still requires that at least 85% of money from state-funded insurance programs go to patient care, limiting administrative costs and profits. The measure also requires extensive data collection and reporting to enforce the parity mandate.
The bill faced stiff opposition after it passed the State House. Some critics raised concerns it would create a pathway to take guns away from people diagnosed with mental illness, while others said it would raise insurance premiums for benefits they didn’t want. Others have focused on language referencing World Health Organization standards, saying it could subject the state government to international standards. World Health Organization language was removed, instead referring to existing state law to define mental illness.
Representative Philip Singleton, a Republican from Sharpsburg who had led the opposition, called the changes a victory. “We got almost everything we asked for,” he said after voting for the measure.
The changes in the bill are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars in additional state spending. A provision to bolster the state’s mental health workforce would forgive loans to people studying to become mental health professionals. Funding will be an obligation that the state will have to maintain in the future.
“House Bill 1013 does not solve our mental health crisis,” Strickland said. “Many parts of this bill require long-term investment in the years to come.”
The measure also attempts to improve existing tools aimed at keeping people with mental health and addictions issues out of prison. A grant program would help identify people who should be forced into treatment.
Also on Wednesday, the House voted 165-0 for Senate Bill 403 that would require the state’s 23 Community Service Commissions, which are local mental health agencies, to provide co-sponsors to any local agency. law enforcement that wants them. Workers would respond in person or virtually. Police departments and sheriffs would not be required to use the service. The measure is up to the Senate to approve minor changes.
Proponents say these services are currently available in six or seven jurisdictions statewide. In Athens-Clarke County, the share of those arrested by police responding to mental health calls fell from 90% to 10% after such a program was implemented, advocates said.