ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is unlikely to see a restoration of the $91 million cut from its budget in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic last year.
The department, which serves over 200,000 Georgians with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, is set to receive no additional state funding in the amended fiscal year 2021 budget and a $22 million increase for fiscal year 2022. Democratic state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, a mental health practitioner, criticized the budget proposals for being too small to address the mental health challenges of the state.
“It’s a system that’s well planned for, but underfunded,” said Hutchinson. “Way underfunded.”
Hutchinson lamented budget cuts across the state as a whole, and warned that the costs of underfunding public health agencies would be far reaching. She sympathized with department Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald’s position, however, and praised her management despite the budget shortfalls.
“I do think that they are able to do their mission,” said Hutchinson. “I don’t think that they’re able to do it in the amount, for the amount of people who need it.”
Fitzgerald outlined Governor Brian Kemp’s budget requests at a joint appropriations hearing last week. She referred to last year’s expansive cuts as strategic, and sought to assure lawmakers that the department’s mission remained unchanged despite the weakened funding.
“I want to assure you, what you see there, our goals remain the same whether it’s the pandemic or not,” said Fitzgerald at the hearing. “We still have a strong commitment to provide services and support the individuals in communities and in our hospitals.”
But Georgia remains the worst state for access to mental health treatment in the country, according to Mental Health America, a national non-profit organization that puts together yearly mental health rankings. Sharon Tucker, executive director of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, an advocacy group with more than 6,000 members, believes the pandemic has only intensified the need for treatment access, especially for at-risk Georgians.
“The pandemic has created a more significant treatment, support, and care need because of all the isolation and the grief and the loss and the fear,” said Tucker.
Fitzgerald acknowledged in the hearing the deep challenges that come with administering public mental health services in the middle of a pandemic, but credited the adaptability of her department through innovations like telehealth, as well as an increase in federal funding, with keeping the department functional.
“The feds gave a really, really vital lifeline to the states,” said Fitzgerald in her presentation.
Republican state Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, offered a similar defense of the department’s budget during floor debate of the amended fiscal year 2021 bill.
“They have also been the recipients of several millions of dollars of federal funds that they have been able to use in the place of state funds as well,” said England.
While the department has seen an increase in federal dollars, it has not been enough to cover the $91 million cut last year in either the amended fiscal year 2021 budget or the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget.
“They expect us to quit treating mental health as less than what it is,” said Republican House Speaker David Ralston … “A serious, widespread, and crippling problem that touches the lives of almost every family in Georgia.”
The department acts as the public safety net for individuals in Georgia facing an array of mental health illnesses, substance abuse disorders and developmental disabilities. It primarily serves the underinsured and uninsured, as well as those receiving Medicaid, through a complex system of hundreds of community-based providers and five state hospitals.
Prior to last year’s cuts, the department had seen a steady increase in funding over the previous decade as the result of a settlement agreement reached with the U.S Department of Justice. The settlement materialized after the DOJ found the department to be inadequately handling mental health services, prompting a lawsuit to overhaul the system. Georgia’s system is now monitored by the DOJ, and since the settlement the department’s state appropriation has increased by over $500 billion.
Still, mental health in Georgia remains a widespread issue, with over 2 million people having mental illnesses, according to Mental Health America. Tucker does not see the long-term spending increase as enough to address the full scope of the problem.
“The Legislature has not committed the resources necessary to adequately fund and resource the work,” said Tucker.
Despite the funding challenges, there appears to be a growing bipartisan appetite for mental health related legislation from lawmakers at the General Assembly.
“They expect us to quit treating mental health as less than what it is,” said Republican House Speaker David Ralston on the opening day of the legislative session. “A serious, widespread, and crippling problem that touches the lives of almost every family in Georgia.”
Hutchinson, who founded a mental health outreach and treatment center in Lawrenceville, remains skeptical of the speaker’s call to action.
“Speaker Ralston put together a mental health advisory board, and he did not appoint the only mental health provider in the House on that board,” said Hutchinson, referring to her own snub. “And so, to me, I question the sincerity of it.”
Despite the challenges of building bipartisan legislation, mental health figures to remain a priority issue for the General Assembly this year, as leaders in both chambers call to address it and the budget for mental health services remains under intense scrutiny.