Mental Health Caucus Hosts Workforce Interim Study

Nov 10, 2023
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Chairs of the Oklahoma Legislative Mental Health Caucus—Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, and Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan—hosted a joint interim study on Tuesday before the House Public Health Committee about the most pressing challenges facing Oklahoma’s behavioral health workforce.

“Oklahoma faces critical shortages of nearly every type of behavioral health clinician,” said Boatman. “The Legislature has made investments in behavioral health workforce development, including the passage of House Bill 2036 earlier this year to create a pilot incentive program through the OSU Medical Authority. However, more needs to be done, and I encourage my colleagues in both chambers to seriously consider additional investments during the next legislative session.”

During the interim study, Tequia Sier, project director for behavioral health workforce at Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, noted that Oklahoma’s psychiatrist workforce is 22% smaller than the per-capita national average. Sier mentioned the state's psychologist workforce is less than half as robust as the rest of the nation and Oklahoma also meets less than 29% of the estimated need for psychiatric advanced practice nurses.

"This study provided a poignant look at the gap between the size of our mental health workforce and the need by Oklahomans, in particular psychologists and psychiatrists,” said Provenzano. “The limited number of university internships and residency opportunities in Oklahoma means our future doctors must overwhelmingly move out of state to complete their training. When they go, they tend not to return. It’s time for Oklahoma to grow our capacity and retain these doctors here at home.”

Sier said the state’s degree programs supporting behavioral health careers are graduating more students than ever, but not enough to meet the state’s growing need for treatment services after workforce attrition. In-state training opportunities are particularly limited for the most-needed, most highly trained behavioral health professions — psychiatry and psychology.

“The challenges facing Oklahoma’s behavioral health workforce are especially acute in our rural communities,” said Garvin. “We need to grow this workforce in ways that help Oklahomans better access services and find quality care for themselves and their families.”

“Despite the dire urgency, this study was hopeful,” said Kirt. “It showed us that we do not have to accept long waits for care or underprepared professionals. We have a clear roadmap for improving Oklahoma’s behavioral health workforce through boosts in investment.”

Recommendations for strategies to address the state’s key challenges and opportunities included incentivizing students into expedient training pathways, expanding training that fuels in-state retention of critically needed clinicians, enhancing educational programs tailored to treatment system needs and providing upskilling opportunities for paraprofessionals.

“Policymakers have practical and realistic options for addressing the state's most pressing behavioral health workforce challenges,” said Healthy Minds Executive Director Zack Stoycoff. “With roughly $30 million in targeted funding and policy initiatives, Oklahoma can significantly strengthen workforce pipelines to meet the state’s growing need for behavioral health professionals.”

Other speakers at the interim study included Dr. Melissa Craft, associate dean for clinical affairs at University of Oklahoma College of Nursing; Dr. Julie Miller-Cribbs, director of the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work at University of Oklahoma ; Dr. Sara Coffey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences; Jim Serratt, of Parkside Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic; and Josh Cantwell, COO of GRAND Mental Health.

Oklahoma House of Representatives seal