The issue of workforce shortages continues to be one of behavioral health’s most pressing concerns, and it has hit California especially hard. Newly introduced legislation out of the nation’s most populous state aims to rectify the problem by directing financial incentives at would-be behavioral professionals currently attending colleges and universities.
The Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act calls for – among various measures – $37,000 in stipends to be supplied to master’s students studying for a degree in social work, and who subsequently take behavioral health jobs with a public agency. A state fund has also been proposed as part of the bill that would provide bonuses to those who are already licensed and working in the field.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, who introduced the bill, noted that the need for behavioral health assistance was already great prior to the pandemic, which has been linked to an overall rise nationwide wide in conditions like stress and anxiety.
“Before the pandemic there was a huge need for mental health services and people were struggling to access services, but the pandemic has poured lighter fluid on our mental health challenges,” Wiener, who represents San Francisco and surrounding areas in California’s 11th Senate District, told the Los Angeles Times. “The stress, anxiety and trauma of the pandemic have impacted so many people, particularly kids.”
The bill arrives at a time when over a third of Americans live in areas that lack sufficient behavioral health care providers, which has been attributed to an overall shortage of health care workers.
In California, the situation is especially dire for individuals dealing with a variety of behavioral health conditions – with one grim estimate having over 50% of Golden State residents with mental illnesses not receiving care.
“We have a shortage that over the next five years could get really bad,” Wiener added. “We need to incentivize people to join and stay in this workforce.”
The bill is also directed at California’s higher education systems, which include the California Community Colleges, as well as the California State University and University of California systems.
All three systems would be required to develop accelerated social work degree programs, which would allow students with one or two years left of undergraduate study – and who are eyeing advanced degrees – to combine that scholarship with graduate work. The bill additionally aims to make it easier to get more peer support specialists into jobs.
Students who have experience as peer support specialists – as well as those who are community health workers or psychiatric technicians – would be able to take accelerated classes at state schools to receive associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The degree programs can be offered online and on a part-time basis, with night classes available for those currently holding full-time jobs.
The bill would require Medi-Cal – which is California’s Medicaid program – to provide coverage for peer support specialists. California, which has the nation’s largest Medicaid program, recently granted the state’s 58 counties the option of reimbursing peer support services through the combined state-federal payor.
The Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act also follows other previous efforts in California to plug the behavioral workforce shortage gap with the assistance of higher education institutions.
In 2020, three schools within the University of California system – Davis, Los Angeles and San Francisco – launched an online education program for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), with the goal of certifying 300 into the profession by 2025. The first class of PMHNP students in the program finished their certificate training at the end of last year.