By Patrick Evans, Tom Sebastian and Jodi DalySpecial to The Times
After more than a year, acknowledging the mental-health impacts of the pandemic is like acknowledging a five-alarm fire — unmistakable and growing increasingly urgent each day. Not only are we all still reeling from the effects of living through a pandemic, we now know that a third of COVID-19 survivors are experiencing neurological or mental disorders, according to recent research.
As front-line workers, community behavioral health providers have witnessed firsthand the most debilitating effects. The confluence of housing insecurity, economic downturn and prolonged isolation are among the many factors that have contributed to anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance use.
While we are responsible for addressing those critical needs, it’s doubly frightening that we’re now facing an existential workforce issue. Because of chronic underfunding, community behavioral health providers throughout the state cannot hire or retain enough qualified mental-health professionals to keep pace with our communities’ needs.
As leaders of large community behavioral health agencies from Puget Sound to Eastern Washington, we see firsthand how the burden of this deficit ultimately falls onto our clients — vulnerable, low-income adults, children and teens who qualify for Medicaid benefits — and our partners in health care and public safety.
To protect our clients and the safety net, we ask that state leaders invest more in community behavioral health services so we can provide enough compensation for mental-health professionals to afford to serve our communities.
The biggest obstacle we face is the fact that chronic underfunding has led to systemic workforce challenges. We are dedicating around $0.80 of every revenue dollar to staff compensation and are still unable to provide competitive salaries. Team members often leave community behavioral health to go elsewhere — including private practice, large hospital systems, and even other state and federally run providers, such as Veterans Affairs. This isn’t necessarily a matter of preference, it’s an issue of pay.
As a result, the community behavioral health workforce across the state shrunk by 11% in the last year alone, according to a member survey by the Washington Council on Behavioral Health. Data also show that staff vacancy rates stand at 13%, with an average of five months to fill critical positions. Independent reports place vacancies as high as 26% for clinical staff positions.
High turnover rates and vacancies have a significant impact on our local communities. In fact, community behavioral health providers across the state have been forced to close programs or temporarily stop accepting new clients in order to continue serving existing clients — turning away individuals, families and children in our very communities who are in need of help.
This issue is solvable. Central to our objective is the understanding that behavioral health care is health care — and specifically, community behavioral health determines the health of entire communities. This mindset must be reflected in the structure and economics of how we are compensated.
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