This year, the General Assembly passed sweeping changes to the state’s mental health care system.
HB 1013 was passed with a 54-0 vote in the Senate and a 166-0 vote in the House.
"Hope won," said House Speaker David Ralston, who led the measure. He said this to 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."
Georgia ranks 48th or 49th, depending on how you measure it, in the arena of mental health.
The Senate made changes to the House’s original measure, including slightly weakening language aimed at enforcing federal requirements that health insurers provide the same level of benefits for mental health disorders and addiction as they do for physical illness.
Ralston was very blunt. His message to insurers was, "Do the right thing, play by the law when it takes effect July 1.”
The compromise keeps the current standard for a police officer involuntarily committing someone into treatment, providing the person must show an "imminent" risk of harm to themselves or others. However, new language allows an officer to take someone to an emergency facility to be evaluated after getting permission from a physician.
The bill will provide support to those struggling with addiction, depression and other mental health issues.
The measure still requires that at least 85 percent of money in public-funded insurance programs goes to patient care.
.The painful aspect of the changes under the bill will be an increase in state spending. One provision aimed at boosting the state’s mental health workforce would forgive loans for people studying to become mental health professionals. Funding will be one obligation that the state has to maintain in the future.
House Bill 1013 doesn’t solve our mental health crisis. Many parts of this bill require long-term investment in the years to come.
However, untreated addiction, poor mental health, and depression cost our state millions of dollars a year.
HB 1013 will also improve existing tools aimed at keeping people with mental health and substance abuse problems out of jail. A grant program would help identify people who should be in treatment.
Another new law, SB 403, would require the state’s 23 community service boards, which are local mental health agencies, to provide co-responders to any local law enforcement agency that wants them.
These services are currently available in six or seven jurisdictions statewide. In Athens-Clarke County, the share of people being arrested by police responding to mental health calls fell from 90 percent to 10 percent after such a program was in place. Less arrests of mentally ill citizens equals less danger to our police officers.
Even though I am a fiscal conservative, I have friends and know many honorable people in the insurance industry, and the above legislation is simply needed. Many Georgians will have to make sacrifices in order for the provisions in the law to work.
However, there are three truths that these measures address:
1. As a staunch defender of the 2nd Amendment, I would never support legislation that infringed on this Constitutional right. These new laws will not create a pathway to taking away guns of people diagnosed with mental illness;
2. Law enforcement officers protect our community. They should never face an increase in danger; and
3. Jails are not meant to be mental health institutions. Sheriffs throughout the state overwhelming agree.
Thank you for your courage, Speaker Ralston. You are a true public servant.
Jason Swindle is a criminal defense attorney and serves the Coweta Judicial Circuit on the Board of Governors for the State Bar of Georgia.