Illinois has a chance to empower community mental health providers

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Despite working in the mental health space, nonprofit providers like Thresholds and their dedicated staff are not immune to the mental and emotional rigors of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health has become a critical focus for everyone, including our workforce, as the number of people experiencing depression and anxiety has surged during the past two years. Add on-the-job burnout, social isolation and economic uncertainty, and you have a perfect storm for behavioral health issues.

While the need for mental health services has never been greater, access to care is limited because there are not enough treatment professionals. Prior to the pandemic, Illinois’ mental health workforce was enough to support just 23% of Illinoisans in need of care. Providers like Thresholds and countless others across the state are forced to turn thousands of people away every year. This mental health crisis is creating a tremendous amount of turnover on the front lines of care delivery, shrinking the workforce and reducing service delivery throughout the sector. And the issue only snowballs.

As a provider that cares for those with the most serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder, Thresholds continued to do in-person work throughout the pandemic to care for our clients in their daily lives. Pandemic or not, our tremendous staff are out there every day giving people hope for a better tomorrow, and we need to show them just how much they are valued. To do so, we increased investment in their mental health support through our employee assistance program, increased salaries for certain positions and provided pandemic-related bonuses, as well as sign-on and retention bonuses.

To ensure our staff and clients were safe from severe COVID-19 symptoms, we required that staff be vaccinated and later boosted, while also allowing religious or medical exemptions. (Staff also worked hard to get much-need vaccinations and boosters for our clients.) Most recently, in response to rising gas prices, we provided a gas bonus for our high number of staff who drive for their job to provide in-home and community care for our clients.

Still, there are challenges.

Thresholds’ main revenue source is the state’s Medicaid program, which reimburses our work at antiquated rates. We do not have the same option as for-profit businesses to simply raise rates to cover costs; when nonprofit providers increase critical employee benefits, provide more time off for staff or employer health insurance costs go up (and they go up every year), nonprofit providers have no way to make up the additional costs. These important and necessary staff support measures add greater strain on slim organizational budgets.

This is why it is crucial that we increase state investment by increasing the Medicaid rate, helping us and providers across the state provide care to the more than 3 million people in Illinois who have health coverage through the state’s Medicaid program. This will not only support and attract valued treatment professionals, but also increase access to care for so many who need it.

We are seeing strong bipartisan support for funding proposed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, that would make a $170 million to $180 million investment in both mental health and substance use treatment. This additional funding would be historic and empower nonprofit providers to make the kinds of investment in our workforce that they have long deserved.

We are counting on Gov. Pritzker and the General Assembly to ensure this investment is included in the final state budget to support the community mental health workforce and to improve access to care.

Mark Ishaug is the CEO of Thresholds, one of Illinois’ largest community mental health providers.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

March 31, 2022 at 06:00PM

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