ATLANTA (AP) — Private health insurers would face additional pressure to provide the same level of benefits for mental health disorders as they do for other medical problems under a wide-ranging bill to address Georgia’s dismal mental health care system that cleared a key state legislative committee on Wednesday.
The House Health and Human Services Committee voted in favor of HB 1013 after hearing from a powerful backer of the bill, House Speaker David Ralston. The bill, which would cost $29 million, must go through one more House committee before it can be voted on by the full House and then the state Senate.
Ralston said he saw it as the start of a “multiyear” conversation about improving Georgia’s mental health services. The state has seen a spike in substance abuse and rural suicides and consistently ranks near the bottom of U.S. states for access to mental health care.
“We did not get in this place we are today overnight, and we will not get out overnight,” Ralston said. “But I can’t think of a better big first step to take than this bill.”
HB 1013 would require the state’s insurance commissioner to collect data to ensure private insurers provide the same level of benefits for depression, anxiety and other mental disorders as they do for other medical conditions. The commissioner would also have to set up a process for responding to consumer complaints of potential violations of the parity requirement.
The bill would also force companies that cover Medicaid recipients to spend more money on mental health services and other patient care. A separate provision aimed at boosting the state’s mental health workforce would extend loan forgiveness to people studying to become mental health professionals.
HB 1013 also tries to improve existing tools aimed at keeping people with mental health and substance abuse problems out of jail. A grant program under the bill would give a board or private provider authority to identify people who should be forced into treatment and then establish procedures to ensure a petition seeking their involuntary commitment is filed in probate court.
Police, additionally, would have the authority to take people for mental health treatment without witnessing a crime.
Some advocates have raised concerns about the forced-treatment provisions, but state lawmakers say the current system is not working to keep people suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems out of emergency rooms and the criminal justice system.