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New bill aims to alleviate mental health workforce shortages

Daily Times-Call - 2/1/2020

Feb. 1--A couple of times a week Sue Harig meets with clients from Mental Health Partners just to talk for a while. She's not a psychotherapist or psychiatrist, but as a certified peer support specialist, Harig has firsthand experience with mental illness and has been trained by Mental Health Partners in Boulder County to help others along in their recovery -- kind of like a mental health sponsor.

The "sessions" mostly consist of Harig visiting her clients at home, helping them with chores, or accompanying them in stressful situations such as waiting in line at the DMV -- which she did on Friday -- and practicing different social skills or mindfulness techniques Harig picked up during her own recovery and training.

"My clients can relate to me on a different level," she said. "Many are very isolated and feel like they don't have anyone they can trust. I let them know what my story has been, which helps them to not feel judged, and allows them to see their recovery in a more hopeful way. They start to see that they are more than just their mental illness and their personality comes out."

Though it seems simple, Mental Health Colorado -- a mental health advocacy organization -- found that peer-delivered services in mental health and substance abuse treatments cut hospitalizations in half, increased engagement in self-care and wellness, and decreased psychotic symptoms. Mental health advocates in Boulder County also believe that expanding their use could help improve access to mental health services.

"Peer support professionals can't replace a psychiatrist or physiotherapist," said John Stringfellow, the board president for Boulder County's chapter of The National Alliance on Mental Illness, "but they can be a valuable member of an integrated support team."

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 30 percent of Colorado's mental health needs are being met, as a result of the workforce shortage in the mental health field. Those that do seek help often have to wait months before receiving any help.

However, at Mental Health Partners in Boulder County, patients wait an average of seven days to see a therapist and, thanks to the likes of peer support professionals, community members can receive a same-day assessment, which offers support and starts their individualized plan for mental health or addiction services.

"Folks who have lived experience and are in recovery from mental health conditions and substance use disorder have been proven to be very effective in supporting other people's recovery," Vincent Atchity, the CEO of Mental Health Colorado, said, "but their current scope of practice is limited by the locations where their work is reimbursable by Medicare."

To allow more providers to take advantage of peer support professionals, Representatives Yadira Caraveo and Rod Pelton introduced House Bill 1139 this year.

If approved, House Bill 1139 would allow recovery centers to be reimbursed by the Colorado Department of Human Services, which both Atchity and Stringfellow said it could help alleviate some of the effects of the workforce shortage by providing support before someone can see a therapist, perspective during their treatment, and encouragement for clients to stick with their treatment plan long after they leave the doctor's office.

As a result of peer support professionals, data collected by Mental Health Colorado from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities showed it helped that state save an average of $5,494 per person.

House Bill 1139 would also incentivize peer support professionals to pursue careers in the mental health field by offering refundable income tax credits up to a $100,000 for peer support professionals who have worked in Colorado at least part-time for at least three years in the behavioral health sector and who either return to school or who graduate and return to work in the public or private health care sector.

"Without continuing education, peers may reach a professional ceiling," Atchity said. "The tax credit gives these individuals a pathway to continued professional development and incentivizes them to pursue long-term careers in health care, thereby creating better outcomes for the mental health of our state."

While Stringfellow said House Bill 1139 would be a step in the right direction if approved, he noted that the key to solving the mental health workforce issue will be continuing to address mental health parity.

"We can't address the mental health workforce shortage without addressing mental health parity, especially up in Boulder where a lot of people want to live and work, but can't afford to do so," he said. "If we could get insurance to throw more money into the system then maybe we could get more therapists to stop just taking cash (instead of taking insurance) and more people to take up the profession."

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