Senator Wiener Introduces Major Mental Health Workforce Legislation

To address a growing shortage, SB 964 increases investment in California’s mental health workforce and creates new opportunities for recent Masters in Social Work graduates

SACRAMENTO – Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 964, the Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act. SB 964 increases California’s investment in its behavioral workforce in order to retain workers, increase the size of the behavioral health workforce, and support behavioral health workers who are facing a significant increase in demand for services.

“The key to better mental health and addiction care is investing in our mental health workforce,” said Senator Wiener. “Mental health workers are heroes, and they have some of the hardest jobs out there. They should be paid a living wage and given opportunities for career advancement. If we allow this shortage to grow, we will continue to fail to provide people – particularly our most underserved communities – with the mental health care they so badly need.”

“Our behavioral health workforce is strained and struggling,” said Maggie Merritt, Executive Director of the Steinberg Institute. “We urgently need to rebuild and invigorate it with a holistic approach. A revitalized workforce that is treated fairly and represents all Californians will ensure that our most vulnerable get the help they deserve.”

SB 964 is a critical investment in our behavioral health workforce. The legislation establishes a Behavioral Health Workforce Preservation and Restoration Fund to provide hiring and performance-based bonuses, salary increases or supplements, overtime pay, and hazard pay for workers in the behavioral health sector.

SB 964 also creates a stipend program for students in Master of Social Work (MSW) programs who specialize in public behavioral health. Students will be eligible for a stipend of $18,500 a year for up to two years, and will be required to complete two years of continuous, full-time employment in a public behavioral health agency.

In addition, SB 964:

  • Creates an online job board where licensed providers in California can post job openings for behavioral health workers in order to increases awareness about job opportunities
  • Expands access to culturally competent care by making peer support specialists a statewide Medi-Cal benefit and establishing a statewide certifying body to certify these peer specialists
  • Develops accelerated social work programs with new coursework focused on behavioral health
  • Amends the existing Medicaid Graduate Medical Education Code to add behavioral health providers to the list of those eligible under the program
  • Creates new career ladders for peers and community health workers by developing an accelerated program from certification to associates, bachelors, and masters programs
  • Requires a study of California’s behavioral health licensing requirements to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic barriers that keep well-trained and talented workers from entering the field and working at the top of their scope
  • Requires a comprehensive landscape analysis of the behavioral health workforce to further develop strategies for retaining workers

Currently, only one-third of Californians who live with a mental illness receive the care they need. One of the largest drivers of this failure is a shortage of behavioral healthcare workers. Today, 31 California counties in “high need” for mental health services report having a workforce shortage.

With healthcare workers resigning in droves and mental health needs skyrocketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavioral health workforce shortage has gone from challenge to crisis. Even with the increase in need for quality mental health and addiction treatment, facilities across the state are closing due to worker shortages. When workers can instead, for example, become traveling nurses and receive a $100,000 signing bonus, it becomes even more difficult for hospitals and other facilities to retain staff. And without essential behavioral health workers providing this important care, people with mild mental health symptoms can fall into severe mental illness.

Those in rural, linguistically and ethnically diverse, and LGBTQ+ communities are severely underserved when it comes to all health care, and this is especially true of mental health care. And those suffering from severe mental illness are often forced to cycle between hospital emergency rooms, jails and city streets because of a lack of mental health care workers and resources.

SB 964 is sponsored by the Steinberg Institute. Senators Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) and Anna Caballero (D-Merced) are principal co-authors of SB 964, and Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) is a co-author. Assemblymembers Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), Adam Gray (D-Merced), Marc Levine (D-Marin County), Mike Gipson (D-Carson), and Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) are co-authors.

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