The Interim House Committee on Behavioral Health Care heard testimony from providers and health officials on Tuesday, May 26, about the troubled state of behavioral health in Oregon. Increased challenges lie ahead as services will be reduced due to budget cuts related to COVID-19.
Oregon’s behavioral health system already faces high turnover and struggles to retain talented professionals – due to a lack of fair pay and, for many, crippling student debt.
On average, counselors earn around $ 53,600 per year, and student debt can reach $ 150,000 for new vendors.
A proposal from the Oregon Health Authority calls for cutting the agency’s budget by $ 3 billion, resulting in a loss of revenue of $ 370 million. Specifically, Oregon State Hospital would suffer a loss of $ 42 million and Medicaid, $ 233 million – a major financier of behavioral health care.
Overall, Oregon saw nearly $ 3 billion in lost revenue due to the pandemic.
“Our system will be decimated and we cannot do more with less,” commented Ebony Clarke, director of mental health and addiction services at the Multnomah County Health Department.
Clarke pointed to the increased anxiety and feelings of isolation in patients with behavioral health issues – especially those in crisis.
To meet the needs of these people, health care providers have used video conferencing and telehealth phone calls.
In Oregon, an emergency waiver was granted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which allows fiscal flexibility for providers prescribing telehealth.
Telehealth has had its ups and downs so far. For some, two 25-minute sessions by phone or video conference are easier to manage or less stressful than the standard 60-minute in-person meeting.
However, for those who have difficulty accessing these services – due to location, financial constraints, or technological incompetence – telehealth has proven inadequate.
The vendors presented short-term and long-term solutions to lawmakers at Tuesday’s meeting.
Representative Duane Stark (R-Grants Pass) suggested behavioral checkups for patients, similar to physical checkups. If done regularly, Stark said these could reduce stigma and prevent seizures, via early detection of distress in patients.
One long-term solution, presented by Chief Medical Officer Dr Jeffrey Eisen of Cascadia Behavioral Health in Portland, was state-provided payments reform to create more sustainable funding.
Others argued for the cancellation of student loans and better compensation for people on the ground.
By Stevie Beisswanger