Georgia lawmakers reach across the aisle on mental health

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Marietta Republican, drew applause when she predicted “this is going to be a big legislative year for mental health.” Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Bipartisan momentum for action on mental health in the wake of the pandemic appears to be building ahead of next year’s legislative session.

A group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both chambers gathered this week at the state Capitol for a press conference, with several declaring 2022 to be “the year of mental health” in a state that is now near the bottom in a ranking based on mental health access.

Georgia now ranks 48th in the Mental Health America ranking, which is a slight improvement from last year when the state was in last place.

“I believe that we are on track to have some significant and some comprehensive changes to the mental health landscape here in Georgia,” said Abdul Henderson, executive director of Mental Health America of Georgia.

“The bad news is that, one, it hasn’t happened yet and, two, just because we’re 48th doesn’t mean that we did anything significantly better. In fact, it’s because Texas, Alabama and Florida got much worse,” he added. “So, while we moved up, we cannot take that as a sign that we need to take our foot off the pedal, because that is not the case.”

Proposals for next session are still being hashed out behind the scenes even as lawmakers meet at the Capitol this month to bitterly debate new district lines for the next decade.

But lawmakers and advocates say they are pressing for both funding increases and legislatives fixes for mental health and substance use disorder treatment gaps that were worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The regular legislative session starts in January.

“I would like to make a prediction today: I think this is going to be a big legislative year for mental health. So, stay tuned,” said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Marietta Republican.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said state leaders “really must get down to work, help and put the resources behind our words.”

Advocates have called the rising number of people experiencing mental health and substance use disorder after this extended period of isolation and disruption the next pandemic, urging state leaders to ramp up services and tackle barriers to treatment.

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Overdose deaths in Georgia jumped 37% last year, claiming about 1,900 lives here. And the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has reported an increase in people turning to their services.

“This is our moment for mental health,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat. “You have an entire population of people who have been traumatized all at the same time, and it will take years to heal that that happened during this pandemic. But we are all united in this.”

Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat and co-chair of a new mental health caucus, drew a parallel to the focus on law and order that dominated the legislative off-season.

“I’m glad and excited about the policy work that we’re going to be doing together on mental health because it helps to change the narrative,” Jackson said. “I have been sitting in the public safety committee meetings in which people who are experiencing homelessness and mental illness have been talked about as if they are just trash on the streets that needs to be picked up.”

What’s in the works?

The push for increased funding happens as the state sees an influx in revenue. Collections last month were up nearly 23% over the same month last year. For the year, they are up 16.6% or nearly $1.36 billion over last fiscal year.

But budget writers will also have to factor in the rising costs for fuel and other expenses. Auburn Republican state Rep. Terry England, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, says the cost of doing business for the state may take one of the largest jumps seen in recent history.

“Many folks just think, ‘Hot dog, we’re flush with cash. Ain’t a thing to worry about. We need to either spend it or give it back,’” England said in an interview. “And I’m trying to tell them no, it’s just like in your business or home, the things you were buying for $2 last year, that had not increased in 25 years but from $1.89 is now $2, all of a sudden jumped to $3 this last year.”

Still, England said work was underway to address the state’s mental health needs. He said funding alone is not enough, adding that the shortage of trained practitioners to provide the services hamstrings efforts to ramp up services.

“We’re going to do everything that we know to do to make significant gains in that area,” he said Thursday.

In the meantime, the state has hired a consultant to “help identify actionable budget and policy recommendations” for next year from the state Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission’s work, said Katie Byrd, the governor’s spokeswoman. The group issued a report earlier this year.

About $335,000 from the governor’s emergency funds were used for the state’s Office of Health Strategy to enter a contract with Accenture, which has also brought on the Council of State Governments as a subcontractor to provide technical assistance to the commission’s two criminal justice committees, according to Byrd.

“Accenture is still in the process of gathering feedback from stakeholders, talking to state agencies that would be impacted, and prioritizing the recommendations and potential timeline for implementation,” Byrd said Thursday. “They will be providing us with budget and policy recommendations and a final report for consideration in the coming weeks ahead of the legislative session.”

One of the commission’s recommendations that already appears to be gaining traction deals with how insurers treat mental health and substance use conditions, ensuring that people seeking treatment receive the same level of health insurance benefits as people with physical health conditions.

“Parity improves health outcomes, it helps prevent crisis and it can alleviate provider shortages, for example, in rural areas by ensuring that our providers are able to be adequately reimbursed,” said Helen Robinson, associate director of public policy with The Carter Center’s mental health program.

“Without parity, Georgia families are required to go out of network, pay out of pocket, are limited to fewer visits for care and are denied coverage for needed behavioral health care because they are arbitrarily deemed to be not medically necessary without being provided an explanation,” she said.

State Rep. Erick Allen, a Smyrna Democrat, said lawmakers need to move with urgency.

“We have thousands and thousands of Georgians who are depending on the Legislature to get something done to provide relief, support and hope for their families,” Allen said. “People forget that the purpose of government is to deliver services, and that’s where we’re failing the most.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.