Expanding NM’s Behavioral Health Workforce

Sen. Gerald Ortiz and Pino

I serve on the Interim Legislative Committee on Health and Human Services. Over the past summer and fall, our committee held statewide hearings on what we should work on in the 2023 session. Case #1 was the same: There aren’t enough behavioral health providers to fill the need.

Adding money to expand services will only be successful if there are indeed social workers, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses available to staff those programs. Right now in our state, there are not enough of them. Our challenge is how to get more behavioral health providers, and quickly.

Here’s a seven-point effort we’ll put forward to do just that. It won’t completely change the picture overnight, but it will start filling the pipeline and we should start to see an increase in the supply of skilled professionals within a year or two, if we implement all seven points of this plan.

1. Extend the new Undergraduate Scholarship Opportunity program to master’s level programs at our state universities in the areas of behavioral health: social work, counseling, psychology, and psychiatric nursing. Free tuition in those fields should come with an arrangement that graduates who accept those scholarships will work in this state for a similar number of years.

2. Increase the number of community colleges and branch colleges offering certificates and associate-level programs in human services and social work, including peer counseling and community health worker certification programs. Not only do these programs feed professional programs, but many of their students also immediately provide the crucial and highly effective workforce for community programs.

3. Provide funding for community behavioral health providers to hire professional program graduates and begin serving clients, under supervision, prior to their licensure. We lose many graduates of our professional programs because they must spend up to 3,000 hours of supervised work license before the agency can collect insurance or Medicaid fees for their work. Helping agencies pay these workers until the insurance takes effect will make more of them want to hire new graduates, keeping them in the field they studied.

4. Provide funding agencies to pay for the part-time work that graduate students must do before they can graduate. These internships are an important way for students to discover agencies they might want to work for after graduation, which will likely keep them in the state rather than looking for work elsewhere.

5. Pay supervisory staff time at behavioral health agencies to free them up to mentor and serve as preceptors for new employees. Now, agencies are faced with sacrificing the reimbursements they would receive from insurers for the client services those experienced staff could earn instead of the time they currently spend on non-reimbursed supervisory and mentoring work.

6. To promote the development of new behavioral health services in communities that now lack enough, a fund, administered by the Division of Behavioral Health, should be created to provide grants to individual providers or agencies establishing their practices in underserved areas . These grants would cover operating costs until repayments begin. It often takes five or six months for new practices to start generating revenue, a serious roadblock.

7. An additional school of social work should be created in Albuquerque at UNM. This would affect our largest population center and the opportunities offered for training and job support of the many public and private agencies in the metropolitan area. The synergy created would be a powerful impetus for expanded and improved behavioral health services.

Our efforts to get all seven initiatives approved in this session may, if successful, make today’s shortage of behavioral health professionals disappear. Thus, the legislator’s attention can be shifted to strengthening a robust and functional system, and away from the process of rebuilding a damaged system that has worried us for the last 10 years.

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