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Mental health care reforms in Massachusetts look to address access to treatment, staffing shortages

Paul Tuthill
Several agencies that offer mental health services participated in a free mental health "check-in" at Springfield's Court Square on Wednesday June 29, 2022. The providers will offer free screenings at their local offices on the third Wednesday of each month this summer.

Beginning in January, evaluations and referrals will be offered 24/7

Healthcare providers in western Massachusetts are optimistic about a new state law to bring about reforms in mental health care.

Legislation signed by Governor Charlie Baker last summer aims to remove barriers people encounter when trying to find behavioral health treatment and puts more money into developing a workforce for mental health care, a field with chronic staff shortages.

Starting in January, there will be an online portal and a telephone hotline people can use to seek mental health treatment. 25 community-based mental health centers will have staff available including nights and weekends to provide evaluations and referrals.

Steve Winn, President and CEO of Springfield-based Behavioral Health Network, which is one of four western Massachusetts mental health centers participating in the program, said he’s optimistic it will help people figure out what treatment is right for them and find a provider.

“We have a great start and now that we have a map and some resources we should be able to get into the fast lane, I think, fairly quickly,” Winn said.

Speaking during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, Winn said the recent legislation will, over time, help address severe staff shortages that have plagued the behavioral health care field. There is $122 million allocated for educational loan repayment assistance.

“We’ve had some loan repayment programs, typically targeting psychiatrists and prescriptive nurses, and we know when the loan payment comes through for those folks they stick around and provide care in the community settings,” Winn said.

The new law addresses the youth mental health crisis that was aggravated by school closures during the pandemic. It creates a statewide technical assistance program to help implement school-based behavioral health services, limits the use of suspensions and expulsions, and requires behavioral health assessments and referrals for children entering the foster care system.

Jessica Collins, Executive Director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, said the institute has done extensive research locally into youth mental health and the data should help direct resources to provide the appropriate care.

“The good news is that young people are feeling less stigma and are more willing to talk about mental health,” she said.

Also required by the new law are annual recommendations from the Office of Health Equity on the quality of, and improving access to, culturally competent mental health services. This is especially important in a city like Springfield with its high population of immigrants and refugees said Tania Barber, President and CEO of Caring Health Center.

“I am very excited about the roadmap and especially the 24-hour access,” she said.

The law mandates insurance coverage for an annual mental health wellness exam, just as annual physical exams are required to be covered.

The Health Policy group plans a follow-up forum in the spring on the actual implementation of the behavioral health care reforms.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.