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One-time appropriation could add nearly 300 behavioral health jobs, expand care in Oklahoma

SHVETS production

An analysis by the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative and Tulsa Regional Chamber found a legislative investment in Oklahoma’s behavioral health workforce could add 272 providers to the state, generate taxpayer benefits and significantly expand access to mental health care.

The group presented the idea for this funding plan during an interim study in November, where experts recommended the Legislature consider further supporting in-state training and incentivizing existing behavioral health programs.

The $36.8 million package promotes keeping Oklahomans training and practicing in-state, where every county has a provider shortage.

“The demand for behavioral health services far exceeds the capacity of the workforce to meet that demand,” said Zack Stoycoff, the initiative’s executive director. “We see that in our lives when it takes months to get an appointment with a therapist..”

Healthy Minds calculated the capacity of and need for these providers based on data from the Oklahoma licensure boards and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Advanced practice psychiatric nurses meet 29% of their estimated need in Oklahoma. These providers specialize in assessing and diagnosing mental illness, substance use conditions and providing psychotherapy. 
  • Psychologists meet 37% of their estimated need in Oklahoma. These providers receive training for diagnosis and psychotherapy. They also train to interpret psychological tests.  
  • Psychiatrists meet 39% of their estimated need in Oklahoma. These providers diagnose mental illness and substance use conditions, and they help people manage them through medications. 
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers meet 67% of their estimated need in Oklahoma. These providers diagnose and offer therapy, case management and advocacy.

The group estimates this one-time appropriation could help nearly 49,000 Oklahomans access behavioral health treatment annually over 30 years, and help expand access to psychiatry residencies and training opportunities for psychologists. In 2023, for example, Oklahoma offered 23 psychiatry residency positions from its four accredited programs, and every position was filled.

Dr. Sara Coffey, OSU’s interim chair for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, reported during the November interim study that 400 people applied to its psychiatry residency program that year. OSU only has six of the 23 spots.

Healthy Minds found this appropriation could help Oklahoma become competitive with national levels by using $18.6 million to add 25 psychiatry residencies. The package also proposes using nearly $2.5 million to add seven psychologist internship slots and three psychologist postdoctoral positions.

“If we don't have the slots, you're going to go out of state,” Stoycoff said.

The funding package also proposes providing $6.25 million in loan repayments, which would break down into $25,000 each for 250 aspiring behavioral health professionals. It also recommends $4.4 million in scholarships for licensed clinical social workers and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners.

“What we've got to do is find ways to incentivize people to go into these professions. … Loan repayments, scholarships, even things like investing in preparatory courses for passing licensure exams, will help get people more quickly into practice, which is what we need,” Stoycoff said.

Stoycoff said the Legislature might feel the need to put stipulations on the funding to ensure providers stay in-state through agreements to practice in Oklahoma for a certain amount of time.

The analysis also found this appropriation could generate an estimated $1.8 billion in taxpayer benefits by helping Oklahomans access care earlier on in their diagnosis in less expensive settings and keeping people out of prison.

“If we're able to deliver care to somebody early before an issue escalates to one of those situations, we can deliver care in a more cost-effective way and it'll keep people healthy and out of those expensive systems,” Stoycoff said.

Stoycoff said although Oklahoma is in the early stages of its budgeting process, Healthy Minds is optimistic about its proposal, which has already received support from Rep. Jeff Boatman (R-Tulsa) and Sen. Jessica Garvin (R-Duncan).

“We have an opportunity to make an impact on the mental health of generations of Oklahomans this legislative session,” Boatman said in a news release. “Oklahoma could reap major health and economic benefits by addressing the serious shortages of mental health providers that keep people from getting the treatment they need.”

Stoycoff said the proposal is a “no-brainer” because it would expand behavioral health care to Oklahomans who currently lack it.

“We're helping people and we're building the economy at the same time, and that's kind of a win-win,” Stoycoff said.

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Copyright 2024 KOSU. To see more, visit KOSU.

Jillian Taylor