Consumer / Employer, Legal

How SAMHSA Is Tackling the Mental Health Workforce Shortage

Improving the mental health workforce shortage is one of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s top priorities right now, said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS and the administrator of SAMHSA. To tackle this, the organization has several resources and grant programs in place to recruit more providers and support primary care physicians in treating mental health.

About 37% of Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health providers. By 2025, the U.S. will be short about 31,000 full-time equivalent mental health practitioners, said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS and the administrator of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“For us, that’s really a call to action,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “It lets us know that we’ve got work to do to be able to strengthen and expand the workforce.”

Delphin-Rittmon made these comments during an on-stage interview at the AHIP Medicare, Medicaid, Duals & Commercial Markets Forum on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

One of the ways SAMHSA is combatting the workforce shortage is through the Minority Fellowship Program, aimed at those in psychology, psychiatry, marriage and family therapy, addiction, nursing and other professions. The program trains behavioral health practitioners on treating patients from different backgrounds and works to reduce health disparities. Delphin-Rittmon said that President Joe Biden is looking to increase the Minority Fellowship Program’s budget by $14 million to about $36 million.

“[The Minority Fellowship Program] is near and dear to my heart because I am a fellow. … I went through that in 1990 to 1993,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “It was career changing. I really feel like not only did it support my graduate school, but [also] it gave me the opportunity to be mentored and then later on I joined the training faculty for that program and had the opportunity to mentor others and take part in leadership academies and leadership opportunities.” 

SAMHSA is also providing resources to the existing mental health workforce through technical assistance centers and centers of excellence, she added.

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Due to the lack of behavioral health providers, more and more primary care physicians are having to treat patients for mental health. Nearly 16% of primary care visits addressed mental health concerns in 2018, a 50% increase from 10.7% of primary care visits in 2006, a recent Health Affairs study found.

This increases the burden on primary care providers who are already very busy with their own responsibilities, and some may not be comfortable treating mental health, pointed out Kate Berry, senior vice president of clinical innovation at AHIP, who moderated the session. To support primary care physicians, SAMHSA has several resources available, including the Center of Excellence for Integrated Health Solutions. This provides free training and resources for primary care providers on mental and behavioral health, such as downloadable guides and virtual technical assistance webinars. The agency has a grant program as well that promotes integrating primary and behavioral health care, which Biden is proposing a funding increase for, Delphin-Rittmon said.

“We know [integrating primary care and behavioral health is] so important in terms of creating multiple entryways into care, but also taking a whole health approach and ensuring that people are able to get their both primary care needs met when they connect with a provider, but also mental health or substance use related needs,” she said.

The benefit of bringing behavioral health into primary care was backed by Jeanette Thornton, executive vice president of policy and strategy at AHIP. She said that like SAMHSA, health plans are also providing more support for primary care physicians in regards to mental health..

“[Health plans] are really investing in helping primary care physicians be able to take on certain cases, lower acuity mental health conditions to help relieve the pressure on the workforce,” Thornton said in an interview.

Photo: SIphotography, Getty Images