Budget week: mental health funding

For the full episode, go to Gold Dome Debrief on Fresh Take Georgia.

In this podcast story, I report on mental health funding in the state. Budget hearings at the Capitol included a presentation from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Fitzgerald presents the budget proposal for the next fiscal year on Thursday, January 20. (Screenshot from Livestream on the General Assembly’s website)

Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald highlights issues the department is facing during the pandemic and the growing need for mental health care in Georgia. Longtime Democratic lawmaker Mary Margaret Oliver weighs in on mental health care reform.

Podcast Transcript:

Reporter: Lawmakers say they want to take action in response to growing mental health crises across the state. Legislators listened to budget proposals on Thursday from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. Here’s the story.

Reporter: According to Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald, deaths caused by suicide in rural Georgia increased by 8.3% from 2019 to 2020. Drug overdose deaths in the state increased by 36% in one year between April 2020 and April 2021. Fitzgerald says the pandemic plays a significant role in mental health challenges.

Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald: We know isolation, stress, limited access and the strain of the pandemic is having devastating consequences in our communities, our cities and our families.

Reporter: The department is requesting a total of $1.3 billion, a $129 million increase from last year’s budget. If approved by lawmakers, some of the additional funding will go toward addressing the staffing issues the department faces, including 28.5% of total positions remaining vacant and a 60% staff turnover rate in 2021. Fitzgerald warns what can happen if positions are not filled soon.

Commissioner Fitzgerald: If we do not have the staff, we have to reduce the number of beds that are available. That challenge continues right now. Right now, we are at the highest number of beds offline that we have been throughout the pandemic.

Reporter: In the General Assembly, lawmakers are working on legislation that also addresses mental health programming. Democratic Representative Mary Margaret Oliver from Decatur says she expects those efforts will be successful this session.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver: I think the mental health proposals are going to see some success. It just has good bipartisan leadership, and Democrats have been very involved in the proposals.

Reporter: Oliver says the increased focus on mental health needs in the state is coming at an important time. According to a 2021 report by the nonprofit organization Mental Health America, Georgia ranks last in the nation for access to mental health care.

Rep. Oliver: In per capita spending for mental health services, we are definitely towards the bottom, and there is an emerging, realistic awareness that mental health services are in greater need.

Reporter: Commissioner Fitzgerald says she is working to address mental health needs with increased funding for substance abuse treatment and psychiatric and behavioral care.

Commissioner Fitzgerald: It’s not just a year of mental health, but where we are is stepping into an era of mental health in our state. And really most of all, what this means is mental health is no longer an issue on the side, that Georgians and we all recognize that mental health is critical to overall well being and we make investments that reflect that.

Reporter: The proposal for increased funding will work its way through the General Assembly in the coming weeks. For Gold Dome Debrief, I’m Taylor Reimann.

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