House Bill 520 Georgia Senate Approach To Mental Health
The Georgia Senate is pushing forward a bill aimed at doing more to recruit mental health workers and finding ways to help people who bounce between hospitals, jails and homelessness. It follows a mental health overhaul the House passed last year.
HB 520 would streamline data sharing among agencies, study the state’s crisis bed space capacity and expand a loan repayment program meant to grow the behavioral health workforce. It also allows the General Assembly to appropriate fiscal 2024 funds for crisis services in Fulton, Laurens and Muscogee counties.
1. Loan Forgiveness for Mental Health Professionals
Mental health care is not cheap, and Georgians who need it may find it difficult to afford it. That’s one of the reasons a new bill has been introduced in the state Senate.
It would forgive student loans for mental health professionals working in a shortage area, up to $250,000 per person over five years. Lawmakers say it could help entice nurses and other professionals to work in those areas, where there aren’t enough doctors and psychiatrists.
The bill also would study the state’s crisis bed space capacity and expand a loan repayment program meant to grow the behavioral health workforce. It cleared the House early this month and will go to the Senate for debate.
The bill would also create new mental health diversion programs that would allow police officers to refer people without arresting them for a mental health evaluation, even if they are considered a risk to themselves or others. And it would make sure that people with mental illness who are in jail could get housing and get treatment.
2. Streamlined Data Sharing
Georgia lawmakers are working to improve data sharing between state agencies and other stakeholders. They’re also trying to streamline the licensing process for mental health and substance-use treatment professionals.
Streamlined data-sharing is a crucial step in fighting Georgia’s escalating mental health crisis, which has led to a rise in the number of hospital admissions and suicides. That’s why lawmakers are introducing legislation that would help people who cycle between jails, homelessness and mental health providers by analyzing existing data to identify where they need services the most.
The new bill overwhelmingly passed the House on Thursday and now heads to the Senate for consideration. It’s a much different take on the bipartisan measure that cleared the House early this month but found spirited opposition from conservative activists in the Senate.
3. Medicaid Expansion
A new House bill to expand Medicaid is advancing with support from Georgia legislators. The bill aims to improve access to mental health care for low-income and uninsured residents, while reducing health disparities.
The measure would expand Medicaid to all Georgians earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level. It also directs the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to develop an 1115 waiver to use Medicaid funds to address non-medical needs that impact health and reduce health disparities.
It also adds two peer support specialists to the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, an entity created to study mental-health policies. These are people who have experienced mental-health issues and can help others understand the system from a patient perspective.
The legislation also calls for a study to modernize licensure requirements and provide a pathway for foreign-trained practitioners to get licensed. It still fails to adequately address language access concerns, but this is a step forward for policymakers to do more to serve Georgia’s immigrant communities.
4. Peer Support Specialists
Georgia needs more licensed mental health professionals, such as social workers, professional counselors, child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. But training to become a licensed mental health professional is expensive and takes time. HB 520 would expand a student loan forgiveness program for people who study to be mental health professionals and would help ease licensing barriers by streamlining the process.
Peer support specialists are people who have experienced mental health or substance use problems and can offer support to others with similar struggles. Two peer support specialists would be added to the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, which is tasked with studying Georgia’s mental-health system and recommending policy reforms.
The bill would also standardize the state’s definition of serious mental illness and streamline data sharing among agencies involved in the mental-health system. It also would fund a study of inpatient mental health and substance-use treatment beds to identify where they’re needed the most. HB 520 is the latest effort by a group of legislators to tackle Georgia’s escalating mental-health crisis.