Only a small portion of Georgia’s bipartisan mental health bill survived the 2023 legislative politicking.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Advocates and proponents of improved access to behavioral health services in Georgia had rallied behind what was seen as the next step in reforming the state’s system, following up on the work championed last year by the late House Speaker David Ralston.

The bipartisan measure cleared the House earlier this month with overwhelming support but slowed in the Senate and failed to clear the deadline for bills to advance out of committee. HB 520 remains alive for next year.

“I would be remiss if I did not voice my disappointment that the Senate chose not act on a priority for this House,” House Speaker Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, told reporters early Thursday morning.

Burns said the House is focused on those who feel they have nowhere to turn for help.

“I’m sorry that they will be kept waiting another year. But make no mistake, our work will continue,” he said. “This will continue to be our priority, as it has been for the last two years. That won’t change.”

On Wednesday, the final day of the 2023 legislative session, state senators salvaged one piece of the bill meant to streamline aggregated data sharing among state agencies to help guide future policy making. That provision was added to another bill dealing with inactive state boards.

“I’m going to vote for this for the tiny, little bit of reform they offer but must express real disappointment that we are not moving forward in mental health reform in the way House wished in 2023,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The Republican sponsor, Rep. Todd Jones, struck a more upbeat tone afterwards, saying he wasn’t disappointed and that he would continue to work on the bill in the legislative off season.

“In my mind, good policy is good policy, and it’s going to be good policy in 2023 and good policy in 2024,” the South Forsyth lawmaker said early Thursday morning.

A Senate panel unveiled a trimmed down version of the proposal last week but never received a vote in committee.

The measure appeared to become ensnared in the end-of-session haggling between the two chambers.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones leaned into a proposal to make it easier to build hospitals in counties with less than 50,000 people that did not move out of a House committee. Jones’ father owns property in Butts County that is considered as a potential site for a new hospital that would have qualified under the bill.

Both chambers have set up study committees to dig into those hospital regulations under the state’s certificate-of-need program and how they might be updated.

Burns acknowledged early Thursday morning that the Senate’s hospital bill was a factor in the House mental health bill stalling this year, calling the certificate-of-need reform a “very complex issue” that is better addressed comprehensively.

Jones told GPB “Lawmakers” Wednesday that he had concerns about the price tag of the House mental health proposal, which a state analysis put at as much as nearly $72 million annually and one-time expenses of up to $3.7 million for the studies outlined in the legislation.

“I know it was very popular on the House side, but we’ve had a lot of members on the Senate side that were having a hard time swallowing that number,” Jones said, referring to the cost.

Gov. Brian Kemp showed his support for the House’s work in remarks to the chamber late in the evening Wednesday, saying the representatives “delivered on another historic bill that’s still being worked on” and that honors Ralston.

“Working on this issue has been a priority for both the House and my office, and whether it is this session or those to come, I know that we will continue to work for greater progress,” Kemp said.

Much of this year’s original bill centered on studies designed to lay a foundation for future decision-making, such as a review of the state’s crisis bed space capacity and an assessment of the gaps in Georgia’s behavioral health workforce. 

But some provisions of the bill would increase local aid directly in the near term. For example, one part would create county-based coordinators who would collaborate with a local criminal justice system and that community’s behavioral health providers to ensure the available resources are being used.

It would have also expanded a loan repayment program meant to grow the behavioral health workforce.

The most expensive recurring item was for health-related social supports – like for housing and employment – for eligible Medicaid recipients under the age of 19. Such a change would require federal review and cost the state treasury $45 million with an additional $90 million federal match. This was dropped from the Senate version that is still pending.

“HB 520 has encountered a delay – not a defeat,” said Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy with the Georgia Council for Recovery and a co-chair of a coalition of advocacy groups. “It’s the responsibility of advocates to earn the vote. We have work remaining to do.”

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.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...