Lawmakers, seeking to alleviate the shortage of mental health professionals in Wyoming, are considering measures that would make it easier for practitioners to work across state lines.
The joint labor, health and human services committee this month considered two bills that would allow the state to join the interstate psychology and counseling pacts. By allowing professionals licensed in one compact state to practice in all compact states, proponents say the agreements would give Wyoming patients access to more counselors and psychologists, and give Wyoming providers access to larger markets.
Wyoming residents could connect virtually with a counselor in Denver, for example, or a University of Wyoming student returning home for the summer could continue treatment with a Laramie-based psychologist. Expanding mental health care options is especially appealing in a rural state where the per capita suicide rate is often the highest in the country.
Proponents of the bill say state licensing requirements can be time-consuming, costly, and ultimately discourage psychologists and counselors from going through the process. Skeptics, however, worry that joining the covenants could wrest regulatory control from the state and cost mental health professionals clients.
The nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America ranked Wyoming last in its 2022 State of Mental Health Report due to a dangerous combination of factors: a high prevalence of mental illness and access mediocre in care.
There’s been a phantom pandemic of behavioral health issues across the country, said Julia Harris, senior policy analyst for the Health Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There have been some of the highest overdose rates that have ever occurred in this country during the pandemic. There is increasing anxiety and depression due to pandemic pressures. »
“The demand is on the rise,” said Donald Benson, a Casper-based psychologist and president of the Wyoming Psychological Association. “Part of that has been the pandemic and the stress people have been under.”
“My phone is ringing non-stop,” said Cheyenne-based counselor Lindsay Simineo. It had been a long time since she had had a place in his schedule.
“We don’t want our counselors in Wyoming to get to the point where they’re so exhausted with overwhelming need that they walk away from the profession,” Simineo said. “So this additional out-of-state workforce will be extremely important to support our current mental health workforce.”
Simineo is also lobbying on behalf of the Wyoming Councilors Association, which supports joining the council pact.
The needs exceed the supply of mental health professionals, but the two pacts offer a potential way to alleviate this stress. Plus, joining them could make Wyoming a more attractive place for specialists to live and work.
Utah has joined the psychology and counseling pacts in recent years.
Anna Lieber, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and president of the Mental Health Counselors Association of Utah, says Logan, Utah’s proximity to the Idaho border is a prime example of the benefits pacts. “Most Logan therapists must be licensed in both Idaho and Utah,” Lieber said. “Which is a financial burden.”
“With COVID, we realized we could use telehealth a little more effectively and better,” said Amanda Alkema, deputy director of substance abuse for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s really helped in our rural areas to expand that.”
She noted that Mountain West states often compete for the same workforce and that pacts allow for greater collaboration and shared expertise.
Wyoming has joined several pacts in recent years, noted Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley. The pacts for doctors and nurses have proven particularly useful during the pandemic. Nurses and doctors from participating compact states were able to work in Wyoming without going through an arduous licensing process.
“We didn’t see any downside to that,” Boley said. “Everything has been really positive.”
The Wyoming Psychological Association has yet to take an official position on the pact, Benson said.
“There are absolutely people who are concerned that people in other compact states will select patients from Wyoming,” Benson said. “And it will reduce the livelihood of psychologists here.”
Additionally, some fear that states will lose regulatory control over their counselors and psychologists.
“And when it comes to the Legislative Assembly,” Boley of the Hospital Association said, “there is always a concern about oversight and who is ultimately responsible for making sure they are good practitioners, and that they adhere to all rules, regulations and guidelines.”
However, he also said earlier pacts for doctors and nurses had not resulted in substandard care. “There’s still oversight and they’re still allowed in their home country,” Boley said.
The pact is just an important step forward, said Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Addiction Centers. “But we still need people on the ground in Wyoming. Telehealth is great, but it’s not a panacea.
She says the state should still focus on increasing the number of counselors living and working in Wyoming and improving salaries.
Summerville supports psychology and counseling pacts and the potential for more telehealth options.
“It’s important to recognize that this is how the country is moving in general,” Summerville said. “And without being part of the pact, it creates barriers for people to come and practice in our state.”
The Joint Labor, Health and Human Services Committee voted to move forward with the bills and formally finalize them at its next meeting.
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