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House Speaker’s priority mental health reforms run into Senate buzzsaw

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House Speaker’s priority mental health reforms run into Senate buzzsaw

A large group of activists showed up Monday to oppose a wide-ranging mental health bill pending in committee. Secretary of Senate David Cook (right) and additional state troopers were called to the room to maintain order. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
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Atlanta, GA — House Speaker David Ralston’s sweeping mental health bill is picking up loud opposition in the Senate. 

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this month with just a few lawmakers voting against it. But this isn’t the first show of criticism of a bill Ralston has called his top priority for the year. Advocates cautioned House lawmakers last month that the proposal could result in the state having the highest hospitalization rates in decades.

The measure has since drawn more opponents who have panned the bill as too broad and stirred opposition among a group of conservative activists who packed a Senate hearing room Monday.

Huff Croxton, a probate attorney practicing in Albany and Cumming, said he objected to a change that would allow a police officer or someone who is part of a mobile crisis team to take someone in for an emergency examination.

“The police officer should not have to make that subjective determination,” Croxton said. “If a crime is being committed, fine. But don’t just say, ‘Hey, I think you’re crazy. I’m going to take you in.’ One person’s crazy is another person’s conspiracy theory. So that’s too broad of a standard.”

The bill, H.B. 1013, also creates a service cancelable loan program to help bolster the workforce providing behavioral health services, ensures a certain percentage of money in public-funded insurance programs goes to patient care and not administrative costs, and ramps up enforcement of a federal law that requires health insurance companies to treat behavioral health benefits on par with physical coverage.

Many of the activists who swarmed a Senate committee hearing Monday appeared to be tied to groups like Truth in Education, which is a nonprofit opposed to so-called critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in schools. 

“It’s a government takeover of our mental health,” Rhonda Thomas, president of Truth in Education, said of the mental health bill. 

Opponents also raised concerns about references to the World Health Organization and potential implications for gun ownership, with one speaker voicing wariness about mental health laws morphing into red flag laws. The WHO’s International Classification of Diseases is listed as one of the references for defining what qualifies as a mental illness.

Sen. Dean Burke, a Bainbridge Republican who is leading a series of hearings on the bill, threatened to clear the room at one point Monday. David Cook, who is secretary of the senate, and several state troopers showed up to limit the crowd size and try to maintain order. 

“Please share with us specific issues that you have with the bill, not just something that you read from the internet during the weekend,” Burke said to the crowd.

Loud cheers could be heard coming from the Capitol hallways when some of the opponents spoke, and when the meeting ended, a few people inside the room chanted “kill the bill.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who is one of the lead sponsors of the bill, attributed concerns about the bill being too broad and far reaching to misinformation being circulated.

“There are some things being said that are simply not accurate, bordering on ridiculous,” Oliver told reporters. “The process is going to move forward, and we will get to doing the real work of compromise and creating real reforms for the mental health system.”

Parts of the bill have also found support among key groups, including those representing law enforcement, doctors and criminal defense attorneys.

In particular, the advocacy community has rallied around the bill, especially the provision requiring behavioral health parity. A coalition of about 30 groups has championed the bill from the start, and several of the bill’s proponents serve on a reform-minded commission that was formed in 2019.

Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, has urged state senators to make changes to keep the bill moving – like cutting references to the WHO – but commit to aggressively enforcing the federal behavioral health parity law.

“There’s a lot of emotions around this bill. It is a transformational bill. This is a legacy vote. This bill will save lives,” Breedlove said to loud groans in the room. “Is it a perfect bill? Absolutely not. Is this process the way it should be? Absolutely. So those jeers and cheers are democracy at work.

“This is the people’s bill. It originated with a commission that is diverse. There has been serious work put into it. Our plea is this: Do not let politics trump policy,” he said.

Senate hearings on the bill will continue Wednesday. 

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. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: [email protected] Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.