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OPINION: Hope wins the day in Georgia
David Ralston
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.

Imagine your child or sibling had an “episode,” as some are wont to call it. That person had to be admitted to a hospital in Georgia — hopefully without the assistance of the police.

How do you pay for it — knowing medical care is going to be expensive and likely a cost not covered by insurance?

In fact, medical costs are the leading contributor to bankruptcy in both Georgia and nationwide. And insurance companies have not exactly been volunteering to cover costs of mental health care.

Until now — with an added push from the Georgia General Assembly.

I admit, I haven’t been in total agreement with many of the initiatives the Republican-led Assembly has introduced in the past two years. I think they went too far, too fast in some of their more highly publicized actions.

But their passage of legislation to require health insurance companies to cover mental illness the same way they cover physical illness is almost “transformative,” in the words of one state lawmaker.

The legislation also would apply to Georgia Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan.

It was carried in the state Senate by a Newton County legislator, District 17 Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough. Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law Monday.

Care management organizations (CMOs) participating in Georgia Medicaid will have to dedicate at least 85% of their revenues to patient care, Capitol Beat News Service reported.

In another way that Georgia legislators — led by House Speaker David Ralston — see this as a priority, the bill also creates a loan program to address a shortage of mental-health specialists who are especially rare in many of the state’s rural areas.

It offers loan forgiveness to several types of mental-health specialists as well as primary-care physicians if they work in areas with a shortage of such professionals.

The bill authorizes the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, of which Strickland is a member, to keep working on mental-health reforms by mid-2025.

“Many parts of this bill are long-term investments,” he said. “But we’ll start the process to make Georgia not just the No. 1 state in which to do business, but the No. 1 state for mental-health services.”

The Senate did not change the current law that requires a mentally disturbed person to be involuntarily committed for an evaluation at a mental-health care facility if they pose an “imminent” threat to themselves or others, Capitol Beat reported.

Strickland said an officer could take an individual to be evaluated without having to charge them with a crime.

The original House version of the bill removed from the bill “imminent,” which meant the threat had to be occurring, rather than could occur within a short time.

It also authorizes the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth to provide mental health training to police officers — in a show of rare bipartisanship because it was introduced by a Democrat.

State Insurance Commissioner John King praised the bill as ensuring “a final product that provides much needed coverage without undermining our values or forcing insurers to cover controversial treatments.”

The bill overcame pushback from health insurers and such false claims as protection for pedophiles.

A related bill would allow local law enforcement agencies to develop procedures for mental-health workers to join police in responding to 911 calls, including calling in a trained mental-health worker, the news service reported.

According to the nonprofit Mental Health America of Georgia, this state ranks 48th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for access to mental health care, resources and insurance.

An individual with serious mental illness has a one in five chance of ending up in prison or the local jail instead of a hospital, and sheriff’s deputies and police with little mental health training have bore the brunt of the problems for years.

Ralston — who made the bill his top priority for this year’s session — told House members after the vote, “Today, hope won.” He received a standing ovation.

Hope for many hurting Georgians — and their loved ones ­— did indeed win.

Tom Spigolon is news editor of The Covington News. He may be reached at