As California grapples with a massive shortage of behavioral health workers, state lawmakers want to offer financial incentives in hopes of attracting and retaining more professionals to improve access to mental health services in the state.
Senate Bill 964 by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would provide $37,000 in stipends to students pursuing a master’s degree in social work who then work in behavioral health at a public agency, while creating a state fund to raise salaries and provide bonuses to licensed professionals already working in the field.
Wiener said the bill, which was introduced Wednesday as the Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act, is an attempt to address staffing shortages that have led to long wait times for mental health treatment, by especially during the pandemic. With too few school counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists, peer counselors and community health workers, supporters of the bill say people with mild symptoms suffer from serious mental disorders, while those in crisis continue to circulate between emergency rooms, prisons and city streets.
“Before the pandemic, there was a huge need for mental health services and people were struggling to access services, but the pandemic has thrown some liquid on our mental health issues,” Wiener said. “The stress, anxiety and trauma of the pandemic has affected so many people, especially children.”
Under SB 964, the California community college, California State University, and University of California systems would be required to develop accelerated programs for social work degrees, for example by allowing students to combine their last one or two years of undergraduate studies with their graduate studies in order to complete both programs more quickly.
The bill would require Medi-Cal to cover peer support specialists, who have personal experience in the mental health system and have been trained to work with those in need of services. California would also create a statewide process to certify peer support specialists.
Students with experience as peer support specialists, community health workers, or psychiatric technicians could take accelerated courses at public schools to receive an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in a program offering online, part-time or evening course options so that full-time workers can progress in their careers.
Proponents of the bill say the state’s already strained mental health system is on the verge of collapse, with behavioral health workers leaving due to retirement and burnout, further exacerbating the coverage gaps in traditionally underserved areas of California. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed spending $1.7 billion to address labor shortages, including hiring and training 25,000 community health workers and increasing the number of psychiatric providers across the country. ‘State.
“We have a shortage that over the next five years could become very serious,” Wiener said. “We need to inspire people to join and stay in this workforce.”
Wiener’s legislation would offer a student pursuing a master’s degree in social work with a focus on public behavioral health a stipend of $18,500 per year for two years if they remain employed full-time by a public behavioral health agency or a contracted supplier. A yet-to-be-determined amount of money would be set aside in a public fund for hiring, performance bonuses, raises, overtime and hazard pay for behavioral health workers.
The bill would require the state to study whether there are unnecessary barriers in the way California licenses behavioral health workers, including those leaving the state, and enter into a contract with the University of California. for a study and recommendations on how to address the state’s shortage.
“Our behavioral health workforce is stretched and struggling,” said Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute, a statewide mental health reform advocacy group that is sponsoring the legislation. “We urgently need to rebuild and reinvigorate it with a holistic approach. A revitalized workforce that is treated fairly and represents all Californians will ensure that our most vulnerable get the help they deserve.