In a moment that is few and far between, the Georgia Speaker of the House, David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, introduced omnibus legislation designed to reform the various mental health spaces statewide. It was the second time Speaker Ralston introduced a bill during his six terms holding the gavel. 

Joined by more than 50 lawmakers representing different areas of the state, Speaker Ralston’s bill, House Bill 1013, also known as “The Mental Health Parity Act”, is co-sponsored by Rep. Todd Jones, R-Cumming, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

The legislation is designed to increase client access to care, ensure mental health parity for providers and clients, strengthen workforce development initiatives, expand transparency and accountability for consumers, and enhance resources and tools for frontline responders and communities.

“Mental health issues touch almost every family in this state,” Ralston said. “For much too long, our mental health care delivery system has been inadequate. The accessibility and availability of treatment has been woefully limited. For a state that is rated number one in the nation in which to do business, this is not acceptable.”

According to a study by Mental Health America, Georgia is ranked the 7th worst state in America, indicating that adults have higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care. Simply stated, the levels of access and care for physical illness and mental illness in Georgia are not given the same funding and respect.  

“Imagine if you have cancer, your doctor says, ‘you need three rounds of chemotherapy.’ Typically insurance, Medicaid, etc, will give you the three rounds of chemo. But in mental health, what typically happens is that [the psychiatrist’s] treatment plan is really lowered by as much as 80 to 90% by the insurance company, that’s not right,” explained State Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth. 

Overall, Governor Brian Kemp’s proposed budget includes millions of dollars in additional funding for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to treat adults with substance abuse and mental health problems and add hospital beds for people experiencing mental health crises.

Georgia State Representative Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, chairman of the Subcommittee on Education, speaks to reporters inside the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, January 26, 2022. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

“The brain is the most complex organ in the entire body, the idea that we can simply think of it as if you’re calcifying a bone. This is not a broken arm,” Jones continued. “I can go ahead and set and I can go ahead and have that bone calcifying in eight to 10 weeks. I can’t do the same thing with the brain, the brain is too complex. So we have to understand there has to be some flexibility. So it could be four weeks, it could be four months, it could be four years, or unfortunately, it could be decades. But at the end of the day, we have to make sure that there is parity between physical and mental health and how we treat them.”

According to the same study, Georgia ranks dead last with respect to cost of insurance, access to treatment, quality and cost of insurance, access to special education, and workforce availability related to mental health.

“They understand how clearly the state of Georgia is speaking,” said Georgia Insurance, Safety and Fire Commissioner, John F. King. “You heard this today: The state of Georgia is focused bipartisan focus in the insurance industry is listening and they’re not stupid. They understand that this is important. They need to get on board.”

House Bill 1013 includes the recommendations of the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform & Innovation Commission which was established in 2019. Moreover, the bipartisan commission is made up of legislators, judges, mental health practitioners and client advocates.

“True mental health parity must also include strengthening our state’s Medicaid program to better cover the costs of inpatient treatment for substance use disorder and serious mental illness, while ensuring that the over 500,000 Georgians who do not currently have access to affordable health insurance can obtain the same level of much-needed care,” said David Schaefer, Research Director with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. 

Speaker Ralston will assign House Bill 1013 to the House Health & Human Services Committee for consideration.

Itoro Umontuen currently serves as Managing Editor of The Atlanta Voice. Upon his arrival to the historic publication, he served as their Director of Photography. As a mixed-media journalist, Umontuen...