July Policy & Advocacy Update

Every Recovery Starts With a Strong Foundation 

James Curtin, MBA, LCADC

I understand the fact that there are workforce shortages across the board in New Jersey and the nation as a whole. It seems that the majority of these sectors are struggling with ensuring a workforce in the numbers needed. Those of us providing behavioral health services, such as mental health and addiction counseling, human services like caring for at risk youth and families, housing services, employment training, and so many more, are in a desperate position largely because shortages already existed before the pandemic.  

Organizations providing behavioral health services were already faced with extreme staff shortages for several reasons including public funding mechanisms that have not kept up with the increasing costs related to minimum wage hikes, more and more stringent regulations, unfunded state mandates, and the reality that these are highly stressful and demanding jobs. All too often organizations are forced to offer salaries that pay less than retail work.   

Then the pandemic hit! With it came significant cost increases to the provision of care caused by the need for personal protective equipment, cleaning costs, having to provide hazard pay in some cases to staff working in congregant care facilities, and much more. It also became quite apparent that many individuals can stay in the safety of their own home while collecting unemployment, and in many instances, earning more than when they were working. This has created the perfect recipe for hardship at the worst time, for not just those providing behavioral health services, but also for those needing them.  

Recently, the Federal Department (SAMHSA) responsible for behavioral health services released new research on the effects of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use disorders. The research covers the beginning of the pandemic through November 2020 and suggests that pandemic-related stressors have posed serious threats to mental health, including increases in substance use. The report also includes research on “special populations” that are experiencing an even greater negative impact such as youth, women, ethnic minorities, and health workers. The report concludes with suggested interventions and approaches to support mental health and substance use disorders during and after the pandemic by supporting communities and systems of care. While the findings all definitely hit the mark, the report does not underscore the fact that without a viable workforce, nothing is possible, and the devastating mental health effects on far too many of our children, brothers and sisters, colleagues etc., will persist for many years in this country. 

Recent research predicts that the pandemic alone will lead to as many as 75,000 deaths from drug use and suicide. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey suggests that the proportion of adults with symptoms of anxiety and depression has quadrupled since the pandemic began.  

Stress and challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have brought the critical issues of mental health and burnout to the forefront for health care professionals, their patients, and their communities. With wide recognition and acceptance of mental health needs, there is now a great opportunity to share, learn, and move behavioral health workforce issues to the top of the list of priorities for the Federal, State, and even local Government.  

We must act today. The State of New Jersey is expected to come through this fiscal year beginning July 1 with an approximate 10-billion-dollar surplus. Yes… 10 Billion! It’s not a stretch to say this has never and will never happen again. I understand that fiscal prudence must prevail in our state by paying down debt and replenishing the rainy-day fund, but if we’re ever to come close to meeting the demand for highly effective behavioral health treatment, given the emotional devastation and lingering effects of the pandemic that we all know will exist, then we had better invest wisely in our systems that serve those unable to pay for their own care.  

Our workforce truly is the foundation for a path to recovery for so many. Without action taken rapidly, the problem will not go away.  

We can act by: 

  1. Acting on the 2017 New Jersey law requiring an independent study to determine adequate rates 
  2. Passing A5836 which would establish an annual cost of living adjustment based on Consumer Price Index for programs providing mental health, substance use treatment, or services to persons with developmental disabilities
  3. Rolling out a widely publicized campaign to provide incentives for college students’ tuition forgiveness for the attainment of a degree in the human services
  4. State Universities can provide an increasing number of scholarships to students who want to pursue a degree in the human services 
  5. Continuing all possible efforts to reduce the stigma associated with the suffering from a lack of mental wellbeing and substance use 

It’s no secret that many businesses and industries as a whole are unable to staff up to levels needed to maximize production or service depending on the industry. It has also been reported that as many as 30% of employed people are thinking about leaving their job. It will take us years and years to actually see how this pandemic has changed our professional lives permanently, but we all know our personal lives have also been greatly affected.  

As people contemplate major changes in their careers, I must say there are no better intrinsic rewards than helping people improve their lives. Experts are predicting many will want to move on and try something new. I think the pandemic has helped some aspire towards a greater purpose in life and there is none better than embarking on a career path as a behavioral healthcare professional.

-James Curtin, Chief Business & Government Relations Officer

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