COVID-19 Likely to Worsen Behavioral Health Workforce Shortage

The entire world is feeling the economic impact of the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

With sports seasons suspended, events canceled, businesses closed and travel discouraged, the pandemic is battering just about every industry in the U.S. And while experts predict COVID-19 will boost the demand for behavioral health services, that isn’t necessarily a good thing, as the industry is already grappling with widespread workforce shortages. In fact, some predict the coronavirus will only worsen the problem. 

“It’s not the apocalypse, but it’s going to be tough,” Matt Sabbatino, managing director of health care services at L.E.K. Consulting. “We were already in a behavioral health care delivery crisis in this country prior to COVID-19.”

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Stress, uncertainty and social isolation — all factors that can be detrimental to one’s mental health — go hand-in-hand with the coronavirus. As such, providers around the nation and even the World Health Organization have published guidelines to help people maintain mental wellness.

But in Sabbatino’s view, an increase in demand for services — and a decrease in supply — is inevitable.

“Already folks are on edge, anxious, nervous, scared, whatever term you want to use, … [and] it’s gonna be that way for a while,” he said. “Then, the supply side is only going to get worse because doctors and counselors [could] get sick [or] they might have to be doing other things, given [growing] critical care needs.”

Internal metrics from Ginger — a behavioral health startup that delivers virtual coaching, therapy and psychiatry services to users — seem to support Sabbatino’s hypothesis. In the past couple weeks alone, the startup has seen an increase of about 16% in the total number of sessions it has delivered.

Telehealth alternatives

There’s no quick fix to the behavioral health staffing shortage, especially now that experts predict the problem worsen with the coronavirus.

“In my view, we haven’t fixed it for decades, and we’re not gonna be able to fix it when it gets worse in the short run,” Sabbatino said.

However, telehealth — like Ginger leverages — can help, as it can increase efficiency and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. And soon, it may be easier for behavioral health providers to take advantage of.

Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to help combat the coronavirus. In addition to freeing up $50 billion for the response effort, the move also gives Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar the power to waive certain rules for health care providers.

“This includes … the ability to waive laws to enable tele-health, a fairly new and incredible thing,” President Trump said Friday during his address. “It gives remote doctor’s visits and hospital check-ins the power to waive certain federal license requirements so that doctors from other states can provide services in states with the greatest need.”

The declaration comes after a number of health organizations — including the National Council for Behavioral Health, one of the largest trade associations in the behavioral health space — co-wrote to Congress requesting greater telehealth flexibilities in the wake of the virus.

In early March, Congress gave HHS the ability to waive some Medicare restrictions on telehealth, but it wasn’t enough, the organizations who penned the letter contend.

“We urge Congress to make it explicitly clear that the new telehealth authority afforded to HHS allows the Secretary to waive telehealth restrictions for all medical conditions during the public health emergency, not just those associated with treatment for COVID-19 patients,” the letter reads.

Following President Trump’s declaration, it seems the organizations may have gotten their wish.

Sabbatino advised behavioral health providers to take advantage of telehealth flexibilities and other creative solutions to help meet the increased demand for services.

“Any clinician that recently left your practice, try to … see if you can bring them back,” he said. “Any telehealth capabilities that you have, can you scale them? And then think about how you can protect your clinicians when patients do come in — because the worst thing is once health care professionals get sick, that’s just another exponential growth factor between the mismatch of supply and demand.”

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