Carter Center Convenes Bipartisan Town Hall Calling for Urgent Action to Improve Mental Health Care Access in Georgia

Mental Health Advocates and Georgia Lawmakers Call for Immediate Steps to Bolster Access to Behavioral Health Services in Georgia

ATLANTA (March 25, 2021) — At a virtual town hall held on March 23, a bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers and mental health advocates called for immediate action to make behavioral health services more available throughout the state.

Speakers at the public event, convened by The Carter Center and the Georgia Parity Collaborative, were unified in calling for the enforcement of mental health parity in accordance with a recent Behavioral Health Commission report and with the Carter Center’s behavioral health recommendations for Georgia, released prior to the event. (Key points from that report are below.)

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, also known as the Federal Parity Law, requires insurers to cover illnesses of the brain, such as depression or addiction, no more restrictively than illnesses of the body, such as diabetes.

However, studies have shown that mental health parity is not broadly enforced, posing a particular threat today as children and adults are experiencing increased levels of mental illnesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts also have seen a decline in mental wellness in people who were already living with mental health conditions or addiction prior to the pandemic.

“Lack of access to mental health care services is not acceptable,” said the Carter Center’s CEO, Paige Alexander. “Behavioral health parity coverage by both public and private insurance companies should be a priority. I hope we will continue to call on our state leaders to take immediate steps to enforce parity.”

The lawmakers discussed related bills proposed for this legislative session and talked about how important mental health is not only to their constituency, but also to members of the Georgia General Assembly. They also discussed the process to create change through policies.

Georgia Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick said, “Working in coalitions, getting groups of people together to lend broad support is super important.” Sen. Kirkpatrick, a physician, is working on a bill to ensure insurance companies cover telehealth and a bill calling for more transparency in how insurance plans authorize coverage for treatments.

Georgia Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, a social worker, said the expense of mental health services is a barrier to consumers, largely because of an absence of parity. “We have so many clients who want to come in more frequently and probably need to come in more frequently. People can’t get the treatment they need because their copays are very high.”

Georgia Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said there is an urgent need for lawmakers to focus on mental health, noting the American Rescue Plan Act that allocates $4.9 billion of direct aid to the state. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Speaking about prioritizing Georgians who have barriers to access, she said, “I think there are some real opportunities if we are aggressive and creative and really work at it to extend our mental health treatments throughout rural Georgia.”

All of the legislators emphasized the need for a unified approach and what Georgia Rep. Katie Dempsey called “the need to make the conversation louder. That conversation is an opportunity for innovation and creativity.” Rep. Erick Allen stated, “Having the Commission really does give a unified focus as a state.”

A list of bipartisan policymakers who spoke during this town hall event is below:

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, subcommittee chair, Georgia’s Behavioral Health Innovation and Reform Commission
Rep. Erick Allen, Democrat from Smyrna
Rep. Katie Dempsey, Republican from Rome
Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, Democrat from Snellville
Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, Republican from Marietta
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, Democrat from Decatur 

Prior to the event, The Carter Center released a new guide, "How State Leaders Can Improve Access to Behavioral Health Care."

The guide’s key recommendations to enforce parity include:

  • Include clear parity provisions in Medicaid managed care contracts.
  • Require CMOs to submit complete parity compliance analyses and data to demonstrate compliance, analyze the data, set targets for improvement, and enforce parity provisions.
  • Improve accountability through full transparency and by making this data available to the public.
  • Undertake public education efforts to ensure that Georgians know how to report a parity violation to the state, so that denials can be tracked and addressed.

Editor’s note:

Carter Center co-founder Rosalynn Carter has been an advocate for mental health parity and decreasing stigma for 50 years. See a timeline of her mental health advocacy beginning in 1971.  

Contact: Rennie Sloan,


The Carter Center 

Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope. 

A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, The Carter Center has helped to improve life for people in over 80 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; and improving mental health care. The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and health worldwide.