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'Vote with your heart' | House speaker's wife talks on camera for first time as mental health care reform bill moves to Senate

House lawmakers spoke with gratitude and emotion before passing a bill 169-3 to reform mental health care access in Georgia.

ATLANTA — House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill to reform Georgia’s mental health care system on Tuesday. 

Several spoke before the vote, sharing stories of loved ones who died by suicide or struggled to get care. Speaker David Ralston made a passionate plea to fellow Representatives and the Senators who would consider the measure next.

Speaker Ralston referenced HB1013 as his most important priority this session. Reveal investigator Rebecca Lindstrom wanted to know why. 

To get that answer, she talked with his wife, Sheree. 

While her husband is one of the biggest political power players in the state, this was the first time she had agreed to sit down in front of a camera for an interview.  

“This is important or I would not have stepped out of my comfort zone," she said shortly after entering the room. "Because I’m definitely out of my comfort zone."

Speaker Ralston said his wife pushed him out of his comfort zone.

When mental health and child advocates filled the capitol steps to introduce the legislation in late January, he said her tough questions led him to this answer. 

At the time, Georgia ranked last in the nation for mental health care access.

“She makes me look at things honestly and she asks questions that I prefer not to be asked," he said. "Like, why can we not do this?"

“I feel like in a situation like this you get one opportunity to do something extraordinary. And this is our opportunity,” Sheree said, seemingly about to cry.

Lindstrom asked if this topic was emotional for Sheree. 

“This is very emotional,” Sheree responded. “I have a nephew who, his first stint in a mental hospital was at age eight. So, that’s when it became very evident to me that this was something that needed to be dealt with.”

Both the Speaker and his wife said they grew frustrated hearing from family and friends seeking mental health care that there were no options.

Credit: WXIA

The 80-page bill spent a month in the Health and Human Services committee to hash out what mental health reform in Georgia would mean. 

RELATED: Speaker of Georgia House declares mental health reform a top priority. Here's what legislation is on the table.

There were concerns about the cost of the measure, its impact on law enforcement and whether it would hurt civil liberties or even be legal.

Representatives Todd Jones and Mary Margaret Oliver, who led the bill through its committee process, researched the questions and made several changes to the legislation. 

But at the end of the day, they stood firm in their belief that HB1013 was the right step forward in a long journey to improve access in our state.

Credit: WXIA

The bill attempts to recruit more therapists to the field with a loan forgiveness program that has already been funded by both the House and Senate in the current fiscal year budget.

RELATED: Reporter shares what triggered series on gaps in Georgia's mental health care system, shares how you can help

They will still need to vote on funding that will help train police to respond to a mental health crisis and hold health insurance companies accountable.

“We’ve been in the world where unless you could privately pay and find someone to give you the treatment, you couldn’t get the treatment," Speaker Ralston said. "Or the other option, was to get put in jail. There were no options in the middle."

Credit: WXIA

As the bill moves to the Senate, Sheree said she is now asking those lawmakers to get out of their comfort zone to help make it law.

“As I said we all get one chance to do something extraordinary," she said. "So I would ask that you vote with your heart and be extraordinary."

#Keeping is an investigative series that exposes the gaps in Georgia's mental health care system that cause thousands of children to be surrendered to state custody.  

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