Mental Healthcare and Substance Use Treatment Providers Need Support during and beyond Pandemic

May 1, 2020

May Is Mental Health Month

While the demand for mental healthcare services - as well as for treatment of substance use disorders (SUD), which commonly co-occur with mental illnesses - continues to increase during the coronavirus crisis, providers of these critical services are facing even greater challenges than they have been contending with for years prior to the pandemic. Providers need significant increases in funding and regulatory flexibility in order to continue serving New Jersey's most vulnerable residents of all ages.

"Throughout their careers and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental healthcare and SUD treatment providers have been on the frontlines, placing themselves at risk to serve New Jersey's most vulnerable residents. They have demonstrated tremendous dedication as they have contended with ongoing challenges, including limited funding and regulatory barriers," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President, and CEO of New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. "While some regulations have been relaxed to allow for continued provision of services during the pandemic, mental healthcare and SUD treatment providers need additional flexibility, as well as substantially more funding, throughout the crisis and beyond in order to serve everyone in need."

Providers have been encountering tremendous difficulty obtaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and quickly purchasing telehealth hardware and software that comply with federal confidentiality rules. Meanwhile, the fiscal challenges encountered during the pandemic have exacerbated long-standing financial difficulties due to inadequate reimbursement rates for many types of services; some components of services being non-billable; and insufficient funding, which makes it difficult to attract and retain qualified clinical staff.

In addition, programs have shut down during the pandemic and others are expected to close within the next several months if there is not additional financial support. In a recent survey that NJAMHAA conducted, nearly half (47%) of the respondents have already had to close programs and one agency temporarily suspended all of its services due to clients and staff testing positive for COVID-19. Furthermore, nearly 60% of respondents anticipate closing programs if volume continues to drop.

Income decline - at one organization, as high as $75,000 in a two-week period - is attributed to individuals being afraid to take public transportation and participate in programs, as well as to a halt in development activities and additional pandemic related costs, including PPE, COVID-19 testing, more in-depth and frequent cleaning, hazard pay, staffing shortages and telehealth equipment. Compounding these fiscal limitations is providers' lack of reserves.

"The pandemic's impact on mental health will continue long after the crisis subsides," Dr. Wentz said. "Now, more than ever, steps must be taken to ensure that provider organizations, which have been an effective safety net for New Jersey residents for decades, remain viable to meet the current and anticipated pent up and increased demand."


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