Veteran state legislator appointed to lead mental health reform efforts in Georgia

The governor has appointed the head of an influential behavioral health reform panel to lead the state agency responsible for Georgia’s safety net system for people with disabilities and behavioral health needs.

A week after winning another term, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that he has appointed Kevin Tanner as State Department commissioner for behavioral health and developmental disabilities.

Tanner, who is currently the district manager in Forsyth County, will begin work on December 16. He will succeed longtime Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald, who retired from government service this month and who has had a long career in behavioral health.

Tanner will bring a different perspective to the role. He is a former Republican state official who sponsored the action to create the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission in 2019, which drove the formative recommendations the landmark bipartisan bill from the last session and is currently drafting new recommendations for the next meeting.

When he left the State House to run for Congress in 2020, he was chairman of the Transportation Committee. He implemented several high-profile actions, including bills to improve transportation in rural areas of the state and expand regional transit opportunities.

The governor has appointed department veteran Monica Johnson as interim commissioner for a month. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities

Early in his career, Tanner was a volunteer firefighter and deputy chief of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Kevin Tanner is an accomplished and dedicated leader who, in more than three decades of public service, has made significant contributions to both the state and its community,” Kemp said in a statement. “It is thanks to his forward-looking approach as head of the (Commission) that Georgia is now implementing meaningful improvements in the way we approach mental health. Under his leadership, the department will be in good hands.”

State Assemblyman Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who co-sponsored last year’s bill, said Tanner’s background gives him a deep understanding of the issues plaguing the state system.

“Kevin Tanner’s 30-year career in law enforcement, county administration and the legislature has given him a deep and informed understanding of mental illness and substance abuse,” said Oliver. “His leadership of the Behavioral Health Commission for the past two years has ushered in nationally recognized reform — much needed for Georgia families.”

Jeff Breedlove, director of communications and policy at the Georgia Council for Recovery, an advocacy group formerly known as the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said Tanner’s appointment also signals the increased focus on improving access to treatment for mental illness and Addiction disorders in Georgia will continue.

“The governor is clearly sending the signal ‘let’s push positive politics,'” Breedlove said.

Kemp has appointed department veteran Monica Johnson as interim commissioner for a month. Johnson was sworn in Wednesday during a convened board meeting and said she was grateful to the governor for “trusting me to lead the department during this very critical time of transition.”

For the time being, Tanner is still chairman of the reform-oriented commission, which is to make new recommendations in the coming weeks. He chaired the group’s meeting on Wednesday.

“This is the decade of mental health reform, and we have a lot of work to do,” Tanner said Wednesday.

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