STATE HOUSE – As a licensed mental health counselor, Sen. Alana DiMario has seen firsthand how a shortage of mental health providers is impacting patients.
“When you’re struggling with mental illness like anxiety, depression or addiction, you need care that is quality, timely and consistent,” said Senator DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown, New Shoreham). “But staff shortages, vacancies and high turnover are making it too hard for Rhode Islanders to get the support they need.”
She is sponsoring two bills to attract more people to the mental health field.
One bill (2023-S 0224) would create the Rhode Island Student Loan Repayment Program. The program would establish a fund within the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority to provide student loan forgiveness to licensed clinical social workers who commit to working full-time for at least two years or part-time for at least four years in the state. Preference would be given to individuals working in underserved communities.
“Social workers are uniquely trained professionals who are very much needed right now, especially in our schools,” said Rebekah Gewirtz with the National Association of Social Workers RI. “Social workers can address behavioral and mental health issues so educators can concentrate on teaching. Targeted student debt relief is a big step, and we’re grateful to Senator DiMario for focusing on the mental health needs of our students.”
According to the Hopeful Futures Campaign, best practice is a ratio of one social worker for every 250 students. Rhode Island currently has a social worker to student ratio of one to 686, almost three times that target.
A second bill (2023-S 0783) would have the state’s Medicaid program reimburse health care providers for services provided by interns and residents in mental health professions. That would ensure the intern or resident would be paid for their labor and the mental health provider would be paid for providing supervision.
Under the current system, students seeking their license in mental health counseling, social work, and marriage and family therapy must complete on-the-job clinical placements under the supervision of licensed clinicians. Such individuals see patients, just as medical interns and residents see patients under a physician’s supervision.
But while medical interns and residents are paid for their work, mental health interns and residents are not. And while hospitals can bill for the treatment their interns and residents provide, mental health clinicians can’t. That, mental health providers say, discourages people from low- or middle-income backgrounds from entering the field and creates a disincentive for busy clinicians to train the next generation of mental health professionals.
“Schools looking for clinical placement reach out to us all the time, but it’s hard to find someone to take on these students because clinicians are stretched so thin as it is,” said Matt Roman, Chief of Innovation and Behavioral Health at Thundermist Health Center. “Now more than ever, we need clinicians to help train the next generation of mental health professionals. They want to help, and this bill will help provide them the resources to do so.”
Several states have similar legislation, including Ohio, Minnesota and Texas.
Companion bills (2023-H 5521 and 2023-H 6206) have been introduced in the House by Rep Mary Ann Shallcross Smith (D-Dist. 46, Lincoln, Pawtucket) and Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Warwick).
“We talk about improving educational outcomes and strengthening our economy,” said Senator DiMario. “All of that depends on the mental health of our students, business owners and workers. These bills will help a more diverse pool of applicants enter the field and help our schools and providers attract and retain quality mental health professionals so they can help all Rhode Islanders lead healthy, productive lives.”