Bill Would Expand Clinics' Hiring Options for Mental Health Care Providers

by David Gorn

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Palm Springs has a problem that is shared in rural communities across California, according to J.M. Evosevich, a marriage and family therapist from Palm Springs who is a past president of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Evosevich said at a recent Assembly hearing that clinics throughout rural California have a problem: They can't find enough social workers to take care of people's mental health needs.

"There's a waiting list for people that need mental health care, and they can't provide it because they don't have the [mental health] providers," Evosevich said. "We are uniquely qualified to deal with marriage and family therapies. And those services are lacking in our area."

AB 1785 by Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) aims to change. The bill came before the Assembly Committee on Health last week.

"This bill enables rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to hire MFTs and it allows reimbursement through Medi-Cal," Lowenthal said. "In many places, primary care clinics have become the de facto mental health clinics."

By adding marriage and family therapists to the list of reimbursable providers for FQHCs and rural health clinics, Lowenthal said, it meets a growing need, given the dearth of social workers in some communities under the current system.

But you have to be careful, according to Rebecca Gonzales, director of legislative affairs for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. "Social workers have a long history of working in these clinics," Gonzales said, "and we are trained in these community-based systems. And we believe the supply of social workers is out there to fill these positions."

That may not be the case in 2014, when the Medi-Cal expansion hits, according to Assembly member V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella).

"I agree there is a need for more marriage and family therapists in our FQHCs," Perez said. Perez used to work in an FQHC in Coachella, he said. "One of the biggest concerns we had back then is figuring out how we could bring mental health services into the community," Perez said. "We need to expand as much services as possible to our FQHCs, and this is another area that's critical."

The Health committee approved the bill with a 17-0-2 vote. It now goes to Appropriations.


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