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Survey Details Outpatient Mental Health Care Crisis

By Michael P. Norton

22 WWLP News

BOSTON (SHNS) – Providers of behavioral health care say they are experiencing a worsening workforce crisis at a time when the demand for mental health care is rising, leading to long and frustrating waits for critical services.

The Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a statewide group that represents 80 community-based behavioral health care providers, surveyed 37 Massachusetts outpatient provider agencies, representing 124 outpatient mental health clinic sites, and released the results on Wednesday.

The group reported an 11 percent decrease in the number of individuals served compared to 2019, and hundreds of job vacancies that the group says are forcing people in need of services to have to wait for months. Among the waiting are people seeking help with depression, anxiety and psychiatric and substance use disorders.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a “worsening opioid epidemic” have increased demand for services, the group said, but nearly 14,000 individuals are on waitlists to receive outpatient services in part because those in the behavioral health care field are leaving their jobs at a faster rate than the industry is hiring new people. “We must act now — through enhanced reimbursement, rate parity and other measures — to better support our clinicians and address the mental health crises being experienced in classrooms, living rooms and workplaces across Massachusetts,” said Lydia Conley, ABH president and CEO.

Recommending that insurers and policymakers collaborate on rate parity solutions, the group said pay gaps mean licensed clinicians can earn $20,000 a year more in a hospital setting than in a community-based system. According to the survey results, 67 percent of respondents reported it taking nine months or more to fill a psychiatrist position, and 62 percent reported waitlists for initial assessment for children and adolescents, who spend an average of 15 weeks on a waitlist before starting ongoing therapy.

After passing a similar bill in 2020, the Massachusetts Senate last November unanimously approved legislation (S 2584) designed to broaden access to mental health care. That bill remains pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. ABH said it supports requiring health plans to shift 30 percent of expenditures to behavioral health and primary care, expanding student loan repayment programs to aid workforce recruitment and retention, and steps among health insurance plans to reduce redundant or outdated administrative and documentation requirements.

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