February 28, 2024

SACRAMENTO – Today, Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) Senate Bill 964, the Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act, passed the Assembly Health Committee in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. It will now be heard in the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

SB 964 increases California’s investment in its behavioral health workforce 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.

“As California works to expand access to mental health treatment, we must shore up and expand our mental health workforce,” said Senator Wiener. “Mental health professionals have incredibly hard jobs and are burning out. We don’t pay them enough. We need to create stronger incentives for people to enter this life-saving field and to stay part of it. SB 964 will support mental health workers and strengthen this critically important workforce.”

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:

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

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 

Develops grants and stipends to Masters-level and dual Masters & Doctoral-level students seeking degrees in fields associated with behavioral health, excluding social workers.

Creates a public behavioral health pipeline that establishes partnerships between the public behavioral health delivery system with high schools and community colleges

Requires the offering of an LGBTQ+ competency training for licensed and non-licensed substance use disorder providers and mental health providers

Requires specialized training for providers that are non-native English speakers to improve charting and documentation skills

Strengthens support for substance use disorder counselors and coaches by establishing programs including but not limited to: tuition assistance and test preparation, scholarships and stipends

Fund scholarships for a new workforce training program: Primary Care Providers Training and Education in Addiction Medicine (PC-TEAM), a one year fellowship at UC Irvine.

Provides financial assistance to nonprofits/public sector to support paid field internships and increase slots for pre-licensees obtaining their clinical hours for licensure in the form of grants or direct payments.

Authorizes the CA State Loan Repayment Program to increase the number of awards granted to primary care providing behavioral health services or working in a team-based care setting and behavioral health providers

Establishes a program for tuition reimbursement and stipends to encourage licensed mental health and medical professionals to complete substance use disorder-specific courses.

Establishes the Behavioral Health Education Partnership Program to strengthen and expand collaborations between behavioral health educational institutions in order to expand the number of placement slots for students working in behavioral health and to develop a specialized curriculum focused on working in the public behavioral health delivery system.

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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