Concerns about shortages of behavioral health providers are longstanding. In addition, the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified concerns about the increasing numbers of people affected by behavioral health conditions and in need of treatment.
The General Accountability Office (GAO), a watchdog arm of Congress, was recently asked to report on what is known about the behavioral health workforce in America. Its new report describes barriers to and incentives for recruiting and retaining providers and the actions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support those efforts. Three key categories that pose challenges were identified: financial, educational, and workplace.
Key findings include:
Financial Barriers: Reimbursement rates and compensation for behavioral health services significantly low, according to stakeholders from multiple research organizations and behavioral health associations. One study showed that many graduate students believe their earning potential or income would be inadequate especially when considering the amount of student loan debt they would be required to pay off.
Educational Barriers: Many programs designed to recruit diverse behavioral health providers only benefit individuals already studying in a behavioral health field and do not address the lack of a pipeline for underserved populations to enter the workforce, according to multiple researchers.
Workplace Barriers: The report highlights there is a shortage of licensed supervisors and funded internship positions in rural areas based on recent studies. Rural practice settings present unique barriers, including professional isolation, resource limitations, and long travel distances. The workload for behavioral health providers is often high, which can lead to providers burning out and leaving the field.
GAO also found that HHS agencies have taken actions to support recruiting and retaining behavioral health providers. These actions include administering various workforce development programs to help recruit and retain qualified providers to work in underserved and mental health shortage areas. For example, HRSA’s National Health Service Corps program provides loan repayment and scholarships to various types of providers.
Download the entire GAO report here.