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A key Georgia lawmaker said Wednesday that he anticipates major revisions soon to a sweeping bill to address the state’s dismal mental health care system.

Republican Rep. Todd Jones, a sponsor of the bill, said work on the legislation was continuing. Jones and a Democratic sponsor of the legislation, State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, spoke in front of the state House’s Health and Human Services Committee at the state Capitol. The hearing included emotional testimony from people who suffered from mental health problems or had family members who did.

“I am here to advocate for the strongest possible bill we can pass,” Oliver said.

Jones’ wife, Tracey, told lawmakers about her eldest son’s mental health diagnosis and the challenges the family faced getting him treatment.

“He and our family have walked through the revolving door of access to mental health care numerous times,” she said, choking up at times during her testimony.

A key provision of the bill aims to pressure private insurers to provide the same level of benefits for depression, anxiety and other mental disorders as they do for medical conditions.

Such parity is required by federal law, which generally bans insurers from charging higher copays or deductibles, requiring pre-authorization or imposing other restrictions on mental health and substance abuse treatment that they don’t require for medical or surgical procedures. But critics accuse insurers of violating the requirement.

Jesse Weathington, president and CEO of the Georgia Association of Health Plans, said at the hearing that insurers support mental health parity but face challenges, including a lack of providers.

Another bill provision aims to boost the state’s mental health workforce by extending loan forgiveness to people studying to become mental health professionals. The bill would also force companies that cover Medicaid recipients to spend more money on patient care, including mental health services. The Health and Human Services Committee is expected to meet again next week to go over changes to the legislation.

The nonprofit group Mental Health America has consistently ranked Georgia among the worst states for access to mental health care. Of the state’s 159 counties, 77 had no psychiatrists working full time and 76 did not have a licensed psychologist, according to a state commission’s January 2021 report.

From 2019 to 2020, suicides in rural Georgia increased by more than 8%, to 428, according to a recent presentation by Department of Behavioral Health Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald told lawmakers preliminary data indicates 2021 was even worse.

The state also experienced a surge in substance abuse. From April 2020 to 2021, Georgia overdose deaths climbed by 36%, to 2,086, Fitzgerald said.

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