Each year during Georgia’s legislative session, I and other representatives of Highland Rivers Health go to the Capitol and meet with as many of our legislators as we can. We work to educate them about what Highland Rivers does, the services we provide, and why adequate funding for those services is critical.

In addition, we want Georgia lawmakers to understand the importance of their appropriations to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), the state-level agency that oversees behavioral health services in Georgia. Highland Rivers works to ensure DBHDD funding is translated into services at the local level, and helps our lawmakers’ most vulnerable constituents — with mental illness, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities — achieve a life in recovery.

There are 26 members of the Georgia General Assembly (representatives and senators) whose districts include portions of the 12 counties our agency serves. Highland Rivers is fortunate to have some key lawmakers among our legislative delegation: Speaker of the House David Ralston (Fannin County), House Majority Whip Trey Kelley (Polk County), House Education Chair Rick Jasperse (Pickens County), and House Appropriations Human Resources Subcommittee Chair Katie Dempsey (Floyd County), one of the General Assembly’s leading mental health advocates.

Not only have those four graciously met with us this year, so have Rep. Kasey Carpenter (Whitfield County), Reps. Matthew Gambill and Mitchell Scoggins (Bartow County), and Senators Bill Heath (Polk, Haralson and Paulding counties) and Steve Gooch (Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties). In addition, House Appropriations Chair Terry England (Barrow County) and House Transportation Chair Kevin Tanner (Dawson County) have kindly met to discuss our priorities, even though they represent communities outside Highland Rivers’ service area.

This year we have been talking to our legislators first about funding. Highland Rivers is one of the largest Community Service Boards (CSB) in Georgia, but we are the third-lowest funded. While the population in our area has grown sharply over the past two decades, Highland Rivers’ funding for core behavioral health services has remained essentially flat — meaning our per capita funding has actually decreased. This would be similar to other community stakeholders — Sheriffs, public health departments, schools or courts — operating with year-2000 funding levels in 2019, despite a more than 70 percent increase in population.

Toward that end, we are advocating for a more equitable funding formula that more closely follows population. We have been highly encouraged by Gov. Brian Kemp’s 2020 budget request that includes an additional $10.5 million in funding for DBHDD. Although much more will be needed to ensure a strong behavioral health safety net in Georgia, this is a critical step in the right direction.

The second area we have been working with lawmakers on is regarding Georgia APEX, a school-based program that helps identify children with mental health problems and links them with services. Highland Rivers currently provides APEX in more than two dozen schools in Gordon, Gilmer and Pickens counties, and wants to expand into more schools in more counties.

Gov. Kemp has made clear he supports the program, and has requested an additional $8.4 million to expand APEX in Georgia. We applaud this initiative, and want to make sure that CSBs are the provider of first choice when implementing APEX in schools — both for their ability to draw down Medicaid funding and for the continuity of services they can provide to children and their families outside of schools.

Highland Rivers has been very encouraged by what we have seen so far from Gov. Kemp regarding mental health, and are grateful for the support we have received from our legislators. We look forward to a strong and productive relationship with the Kemp administration, the General Assembly and DBHDD, and we will continue to be an advocate for the citizens of Northwest Georgia.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of Northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.