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Moves help close gap in mental health provider shortages

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Provider shortages in mental health are a major issue that extends beyond workers comp, experts say. 

The Health Resources and Services Administration, which tracks available providers, says 37% of the U.S. population lives in areas with mental health provider shortages and that the country needs an additional 6,398 mental health providers to fill the gaps. 

“Many people find it hard to access behavioral health treatment for a variety of reasons … (and) while the increased use of virtual services through the pandemic has been a positive shift, wait times for treatment have only worsened in many ways,” said Sarah Hathaway, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health for Axiom Medical Consulting LLC. “Caseloads are completely full.”

The shortages are what drove the policy changes in California in 2022, according to proponents. 

“There’s a shortage across the board, across the country in behavioral health (providers),” said Julian Roberts, Atlanta-based president and CEO of the American Association of Payers, Administrators and Networks, which supported the California bill.

“If there is an opportunity to expand access, as long as they can work within the scope of the workers compensation program, we are definitely advocates and are willing to put our resources on that expansion,” he said. 

Part of the cause of the shortage is that “many mental health providers — including psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers — are reluctant to treat injured workers in the work comp system because of perceived difficulty of getting paid, which actually doesn’t fit with my experience,” said Les Kertay, a psychologist and senior vice president of behavioral health with Axiom Medical in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Mr. Kertay noted “there is a problem with mental health providers being well-trained in providing psychotherapy, but by and large not having training in issues related to return to work or evaluating occupational capacities.”