Georgia Sen. Ben Watson

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee approved its version of an overhaul of Georgia’s mental-health system Monday with some changes from legislation the House passed three weeks ago but with key provisions intact.

House Bill 1013 was introduced by House Speaker David Ralston as a response to Georgia’s dismal 48th ranking among the states in access to mental health and substance abuse services.

The legislation would require health insurance companies that offer mental health coverage to treat mental illness the same way they treat physical illness. The parity provision also would apply to Georgia Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan.

The bill also would create a service-cancelable loan program to address a workforce shortage by offering loan forgiveness to several types of mental-health specialists. The new version of the bill approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee would add primary-care physicians to the group of health-care professionals who would qualify for the program.

“Workforce is the critical issue we’ve got to address,” said Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge.

The committee took out language in the bill that drew a deluge of emails opposing the measure from conservative activists. Among other things, it removes a reference to the World Health Organization, which has been a target of conservatives since then-President Donald Trump announced in 2020 the U.S. would pull its funding from the WHO and end its relationship with it.

The panel also sought to clarify a provision that would allow some people determined to be mentally disturbed to be committed involuntarily for up to three days for a psychiatric evaluation without having been charged with a crime. The bill’s opponents had raised fears evaluations could be used to take away a person’s right to own a gun.

Law enforcement officers often take people who are threatening to commit suicide but haven’t committed a crime to a mental health facility to be evaluated, said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the committee’s chairman.

“Many times, it’s in the home where parents or a spouse are struggling [with a mentally disturbed person], he said. “It’s not an issue for crime enforcement but more of a mental health issue.”

The Senate bill also would incorporate provisions of other bills that have failed to get through the General Assembly as stand-alone measures. One of those measure would authorize the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth to provide mental health training to police officers.

The other would authorize the training of co-responder teams of police officers and mental-health professionals to answer emergency calls.  

The bill also would extend the work of the state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission – a panel formed in 2019 that includes mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice experts ­- until June 30, 2025. The commission currently is due to wrap up by June 30 of next year.

The legislation, which cleared the committee unanimously, is expected to reach the Senate floor later this week.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.