Workforce issues at issue for mental health care Workforce issues at issue for mental health care; Senator Creigh Deeds continues his lawsuit (copy)

0
7

RICHMOND – A larger workforce is needed to improve outcomes for the growing numbers of people seeking mental health care in southwestern virginia and beyond, according to officials working to expand these services.

In 2020, one in five adults said they had received mental health treatment in the previous year, according to interview data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Demand for mental health services is higher than ever before, said New River Valley Community Services Executive Director James Pritchet.

“While the stigma has diminished over the years, the demand has increased,” Pritchett said. “We have tried to meet the need by expanding programs and staff.”

New River Valley Community Services is one of 40 community service boards in Virginiaproviding a “public safety net” for mental and behavioral health needs in Floyd, Pulaski, Gilles and Montgomery counties, more Radford, he said. Services range from psychiatric care to addiction treatment, and the agency has at least 80 unstaffed jobs out of its 850 total positions, Pritchett said Friday.

“Even before the pandemic, there were labor issues, finding enough people to hire qualified, qualified staff to fill these positions,” Pritchett said. “The pandemic has made the situation worse, for many different reasons.”

For one thing, community service commissions like those in the New River Valley are funded primarily by state and federal money, and typically serve people whose health insurance, if they have it, is covered by government subsidy, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and managed care organizations, which pay health care providers less than private insurance does.

“When you don’t have the ability to generate as many of these insurance companies, it becomes really difficult to be able to keep up with competitive wages and salaries,” Pritchett said. “The most difficult positions to fill are psychiatrists, nurses, and licensed behavioral health therapists.”

In Virginianearly one in five people are enrolled in Medicare, according to government data from 2020. Administrative costs have also increased for providers such as New River Valley Community Servicesbecause of so much paperwork needed to satisfy these government funded insurance providers.

“We struggle with the different regulations and processes,” Pritchett said. “And then their rates are lower than most other private insurance companies… It just gets really difficult.”

Labor and administrative challenges are what Pritchett wants help from the state government, he said. At the same time, other progress is also being made to improve regional mental health services, such as the opening of a new crisis center recently in Radfordsaid Pritchett.

On the state government side is the senator. Acts of CreighD-Bathwho said mental and behavioral health care providers are experiencing staffing shortages across all professions and across all areas of the state.

“We have to focus on keeping people out of crisis,” Deeds said. “We have to focus on making sure people are okay in their communities. That’s the goal.”

Mental and behavioral health has been an underfunded and underutilized sector for decades, he said.

“People who have money, people who have resources can get the services they need, but a lot of people don’t have those resources and don’t have access to those services,” Deeds said. “That’s why we need to focus on building the best public system possible.”

Deeds said creating a comprehensive mental health system is urgent work, and he’s frustrated that not everyone understands the urgency. He has campaigned for better mental health care since his son’s suicide in 2013 exposed flaws in the state system.

“There are huge losses across the board, affecting a lot of people,” Deeds said. “Lives are slipping through the cracks because we don’t insure them.”

Despite frustrations associated with changes to government, Deeds said the key was to keep working on the process. Successful or not, he is proposing legislation each session “to fill in the gaps” where statewide changes are needed, he said.

“We have a long way to go. We’ve made a lot of progress, especially between 2014 and 2018,” Deeds said. “We lost a lot of momentum and then COVID was like a punch. It stretched resources as thin as possible across the state.”

But the momentum will return, he said. The state needs to focus on building its mental health workforce, to improve the services provided, because west of Charlottevilleit’s getting hard to find mental health care providers, he said.

“We have places, say Blacksburg and Roanokewhere you have suppliers, but we have a real, real need in many of those communities,” Deeds said. “If you can provide services in places like West TexasWhere Montana Where Alaskaby golly you can provide them in southwestern virginia.”

A recent state success story listed by Deeds and Pritchett is STEP-VA, a long-term initiative designed to improve the range and quality of mental health services available to Virginians. It is one of many programs that have emerged from state commissions and studies initiated by Deeds since 2013.

“What we need to think about is building a holistic framework whose goals are to make sure people can live their best lives and to make sure people, wherever they are Virginiaregardless of their level of resources, have access to the services they need,” said Deeds. “The work must continue.

The improvement came gradually, and Deeds said the stigma surrounding mental health has decreased through awareness. But the understaffing in state-supported mental health agencies reflects one aspect of the work that still needs to be done to ensure a full continuum of care.

“People have the right to live the best life possible. We need to make sure people have the opportunity to do the best they can,” Deeds said. “It’s a problem in every community, in every family, and it’s a problem we have to deal with… We can fix this situation, and we will.”