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Georgia’s General Assembly Is Talking Health. Here’s What’s at Stake for Black Residents.

Two bills and one resolution are on tap for the state legislative session in the coming weeks.

Black patients at HIV clinic
Lawmakers are reviewing legislation tied to mental health, HIV treatment and abortion access. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Georgia General Assembly is taking up a number of bills that would have a significant impact on residents’ mental, physical and reproductive health. One seeks to reform the state’s mental health care system by making it more affordable. 

Republican lawmakers are also trying to curb access to abortion pills in direct response to the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to change the rule that required women to pick up their prescriptions in person.

And Black lawmakers have taken up a resolution in an attempt to bring awareness to residents living with HIV.

Here’s what to watch for in the coming weeks of the state legislative session:

Mental Health 

The bill and what’s in it: With House Bill 1013 aka the Mental Health Parity Act, lawmakers want to boost mental health coverage in the state. How? By requiring insurance companies to cover mental health equally. 

Georgia ranks low in many mental health services categories, and the state ranks dead last when it comes to available mental health professionals, according to a report from Mental Health America. 

When it comes to mental health coverage, experts say patients with good insurance plans find themselves underinsured. This leads to higher out-of-pocket costs, and red tape for some mental health providers. So much so, that some psychologists forgo accepting insurance at all. 

Introduced by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, the bill could make it easier to become a therapist by creating student loan forgiveness programs for students pursuing a degree in psychology. Dr. Lakeasha Sullivan, an Atlanta-based psychologist, said the potential changes would especially be good for Black residents who want to become mental health providers. 

And as high student loans create large income gaps between Black and white people, Sullivan agrees that creating forgiveness programs for people who want to become psychologists could draw more Black people into the field. 

“Because of the loans, and because of how long it can take [to be trained in psychology], sometimes it really just doesn’t make financial sense for a lot of people,” Sullivan said. “I do think things like that could really impact the availability on top of some of the systemic issues around just Black people.”

Why it matters: According to a budget presentation  from the Georgia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Disabilities to Georgia legislators, suicides increased by 8%  from 2019 to 2020, and there was a 31% increase in youth emergency room visits relating to mental health. The report from Mental Health America shows that Black people experienced the highest increase in experiencing anxiety over the first months of the pandemic. 

According to the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission’s 2021 report, diversity and frequent turnover have been issues in the state’s behavioral workforce, which makes finding the right health care professional more difficult. 

“Black people who reach out to me for services are often very explicit about wanting a Black clinician,” Sullivan said. “So, I can only imagine that there’s much more demand than Black clinicians can actually accommodate right now.” 

What’s next: HB 1013 had its second read, which is only done in the state’s House of Representatives. After the bill is approved in its assigned committee, it goes to a third reading, where the clerk reads the title aloud, and it can be considered for a debate between lawmakers. After that, it goes to the full floor for a vote. Gov. Brian Kemp has thrown his support behind the legislation, and the bill has bipartisan backing. This means chances are good that it will become law. 

Abortion access 

The bill and what’s in it: In Senate Bill 456, Republican Sen. Bruce Thompson, who is running for state commissioner, wants to ban abortion pills by mail. Instead, he wants pregnant women to see a doctor and have an ultrasound before obtaining the pill. The bill also seeks to ban abortion pills from being distributed on state property, which could have implications for Georgia’s college campuses.

While Thompson didn’t respond to Capital B’s request for comment, he has said he feels it’s best to have a physician involved, otherwise women could be put at risk

Why it matters: Black and Latino people tend to have higher rates of unplanned pregnancy, which result in high rates of maternal mortality and premature births. As more potential abortion access bans arise, Black people are likely to experience the worst of it, according to Lauren Frazier, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Southeast. 

“That is really just compounding the long-term damage of racism that has existed for centuries within the health care system,” she said. “This will disproportionately injure Black women, Black mothers and their children.” 

Between 2012 and 2016, according to the Georgia DPH, Black women were nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related deaths than white women. Various studies have shown that limiting abortion access can contribute to poor maternal health. 

Frazier also said that abortion pills are fairly common and safe to use, whether under direct supervision of a physician or not. 

“They’re treating medication abortion like it’s some kind of back-alley underground black- market medication, but it’s been used,” she said. “The fact is, the FDA has already said that medication abortion is an overwhelmingly safe option for patients, and it’s been used in the U.S. for the past two decades.”

What’s next: The bill was approved out of the Health and Human Services Committee in a 7-5 vote on party lines on Wednesday, with Republicans approving the measure in the majority. It now will go back to the House of Representatives for a third reading, then it’ll be considered for a full vote on the House floor. 

HIV/AIDS treatment

The resolution and what’s in it: House Resolution 652 encourages the Georgia DPH and the Department of Community Health to work together to establish better treatment for people with HIV who receive Medicaid, the country’s public health insurance for people with low income. Democrats Kim Schofield, Samuel Park, Sandra Scott, Shelly Hutchison, and Viola Davis sponsored the resolution. 

Resolutions aren’t necessarily directives. Instead, they are passed as the general opinion of a collective governing body, such as the state’s General Assembly. 

Cosponsors of HR 652 say they’d also like to see some sort of process to learn the rates of suppression among Medicaid recipients with HIV, and then make that data publicly available. When someone with HIV has reached “suppression,” that means the viral load is so low, they can’t transmit the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To keep suppression rates low, patients must be a part of the HIV Care continuum, a public health model that outlines treatment steps from diagnosis to achieving and maintaining viral suppression.

Why it matters: Historically, patients with HIV on Medicaid have low suppression rates. Black people made up a large chunk of new infections in 2019 at 42%, according to the CDC. Even as HIV rates go down across the country, AIDS has become the leading cause of death for Black men in Georgia between ages 35-44, according to Emory University. 

Advocates living with HIV agree that treatment for patients who use Medicaid needs to be improved with more options.

“The thing with Medicaid… is the drugs don’t match up,” said JaQuan Rich, a local community activist who lives with HIV. “There’s nowhere near as many of these medications being covered under Medicaid.” 

Rich says the resolution is a good start, but there needs to be more people living with HIV at the table when policies are being made.  “The main thing missing is having those people there to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is why this is such a big problem,” he said. 

Leaders from local organizations are also in favor of HR 652. 

“Not only is it aspirational, it’s spot on with the policies that they reference or the issues that are referenced, so that in itself is a great thing,” said David Poole, the legislative director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the parent company of AID Atlanta.

What’s next: The bill is now on its second reading, which means it could be on its way to a third reading, then back to the full House floor for a full vote.