Lawmakers and advocates see movement on mental health reform 

Rep. Todd Jones (center); Eve Byrd, mental health program director for the Carter Center (bottom, second from right); Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (bottom right), and other mental health advocates gathered at the Capitol on Feb. 8, 2024 to advocate for mental health reforms. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

ATLANTA — The Carter Center organized a Mental Health Parity Day at the state Capitol on Thursday, attracting agency heads, advocates and lawmakers to discuss implementing a 2022 law requiring insurers to cover mental health and addiction treatment the same as medical or surgical treatment.

Eve Byrd, the Carter Center’s mental health program director, said that as part of its mental health parity awareness campaign the center launched to explain what parity violations are and how to make a complaint to the state. 

Their post-campaign survey showed that nearly half the residents in Albany and Savannah, the cities targeted in the campaign, recalled seeing or hearing about mental health parity and that most women, Black people, Indigenous people and people of color surveyed were less likely to say insurance was a barrier to mental health care after the campaign. 

Two of the lead co-sponsors of HB 1013, the Georgia Mental Health Parity Act, and its sequel, HB 520, an expansive behavioral health bill that passed in the House but did not move in the Senate last year, gave updates on how some provisions in HB 520 have been implemented and are making their way into new legislation. 

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she’d had multiple meetings with the commissioners of the Department of Insurance and the Department of Community Health, which are charged with enforcing the insurance-related elements of the parity law for people with private and publicly funded insurance, respectively. 

Last year most health insurance providers offering major medical coverage in Georgia failed to provide adequate information to the state insurance commissioner to demonstrate compliance with state and federal mental health parity requirements. They faced follow-up investigations and possible fines under the law.

Carter Center staff and other mental health advocates have expressed concern that the state agencies charged with enforcing the parity laws are not getting meaningful insight into insurers’ practices because they provide scanty data. 

Advocates have also urged the Department of Insurance and the Department of Community Health to improve their online portals for making consumer parity complaints, which they say are hard to find and not user-friendly.

Oliver said budget discussions led by Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Kevin Tanner have yielded $205 million in new mental health services in the governor’s proposed amended 2024 and 2025 fiscal year budgets, adding that “we’re seeking and advocating for additional monies” through the appropriations process this session. 

Oliver also said she’s collaborating with other lawmakers on separate bills regarding student loan forgiveness, alternative discipline procedures and licensure reform for behavioral health practitioners, all aimed at recruiting and retaining the mental health and addiction workforce.

Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, told advocates and others gathered at the Capitol that people tell him the Mental Health Parity Act is “the most transformational bill they’ve ever seen,” and he’s proud to have played a part in it since the late former Speaker David Ralston tapped him and Oliver “to be his co-pilots” on mental health reform.

Jones said he’d like to see more public awareness of 988, the mental crisis and suicide hotline, which should be as familiar to people as 911.

He said he’s working with lawmakers in the Senate on new legislation to bolster the behavioral health workforce across the state, which Tanner has said is in “a state of emergency.”

New bills will also address the challenges posed by “familiar faces,” which Jones described as “the folks who are homeless, going through our medical facilities and our jails and prisons, a small population that is taking up a tremendous amount of the resources that we have for mental health and addictive diseases.” 

“We are confident that we’ll get through what we need to in the Senate,” he said.

Jones told reporters that many of the proposed initiatives in HB 520 have been accomplished through other means, including creative budgeting and advocacy by Tanner and other health agency leaders. Among them are a behavioral health crisis bed capacity study completed last year and a workforce compensation study that has led to a 40% pay rate increase for many behavioral health providers in the governor’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which has trained listeners standing by and ready to help. Visit 988 for crisis chat services or for more information.

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