Georgia lawmakers quickly passed House Bill 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act, which is designed to overhaul the state’s underdeveloped mental health services system. Speaker of the House, David Ralston, presented the bill in January. The bill passed in the Senate 54-0 and in the House, 166-0. Upon passage, both chambers erupted in applause.

“Hope won,” House Speaker David Ralston, who spearheaded the measure, told the House as members gave him a standing ovation after the vote. “Countless Georgians will know that we have heard their despair and frustration. We have set Georgia on a path to lifting up and reforming a failed mental health care system.”

The bill was fast-tracked after it passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Monday afternoon. The omnibus bill was 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.

The Senate added incentives for the training of mental health professionals, and facilitates grants for collaborations between mental health providers, courts and law enforcement in dealing with people in crisis.

“Few of you will ever cast a vote as consequential as your vote to pass House Bill 1013, and today it was you who gave hope to many, many Georgians,” Ralston added.

“Georgia is taking on mental health reform,’’ said Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, in presenting the bill to the Senate. “We heard from people around this state,’’ he said. “We heard many stories from people that moved us.”

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)

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.

“At present, Georgia ranks last in the country when it comes to access to mental health care. Only 39% of Georgians with mental health issues have access to the treatment they need,” said State Senator, Dr. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, a practicing anesthesiologist. Au possesses an advanced degree in public health.

“This can occasionally be a frustrating place to work,” Au continued. “Sometimes the changes we want to see and that our patients need don’t happen as fast as we would like, or at the scale we would hope for. It’s not every day that we get to walk out of this room feeling like we move the ball on something really important. It’s not every day in this chamber that we have a chance to make such a clear difference in the lives and health of the people in the state.”

The Mental Health Parity Act requires insurers to cover behavioral health problems on a level equal to that of physical ailments. The changes made to the final bill in the Senate created exceptions to health plans that don’t offer behavioral benefits.

The legislation also mandates insurers to spend 85 percent of the dollars they get in premiums on medical care and quality improvements. According to a report by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, Georgia did not previously have a mandate to hit a specific target for spending on patient care.

The bill is expected to take effect July 1st.

“This is a great day for Georgia and today’s passage of this House Bill 1013 represents our state’s commitment to removing obstacles that many Georgians face when assessing their mental health care,” Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan said. “I want to thank the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, the Senate sponsor for diligently working to advance this legislation because it wasn’t easy.”

Moreover, the Georgia House moved quickly and passed Senate Bill 403 by a 165-0 margin. The bill requires Georgia’s 23 community service boards, which are local mental health agencies, to provide co-responders to any local law enforcement agency that wants them. Workers would respond either in-person or virtually. Police departments and sheriffs would not be required to use the service. The measure goes back to the Senate for final passage.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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...