By Mike Wade, New River Valley Community Service
As overdose rates and concerns related to mental health continue to rise, Virginia’s public behavioral health providers are pleading with state legislators to address another crisis: an increasing lack of workers.
The forty agencies that make up the commonwealth’s public network of community-based behavioral health services – known as Community Services Boards (CSBs) – are struggling to recruit and retain employees, and the problem is only getting worse, according to data shared earlier in November by the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards (VACSB).
The staff vacancy rate among all CSBs in the summer of 2022 stood at 27.4% – up from 24% a year earlier. These figures were pulled from a 2021 VACSB survey and a similar survey that was conducted earlier this year by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
In an email sent to CSB Executive Directors dated Nov. 21, VACSB Executive Director Jennifer Faison indicated that her organization’s top priority for the upcoming General Assembly session would be to advocate for state funds that support workforce stabilization. Specifically, VACSB is requesting $162.6 million from the state in FY24 to provide quarterly recruitment and retention bonuses for direct care positions in CSBs.
Faison noted in her communication with CSB executives that state legislators had already taken similar action to address workforce shortages in the state’s psychiatric hospitals, allocating approximately $138 million over a three-year period to shore up staffing in those state-operated facilities.
“CSBs need a similar level of investment in order to stabilize the community-based system of care across all service lines, Faison said. “Until the workforce is addressed with a comprehensive strategy for the entire public system, the CSBs will continue to lose their staff to not only private providers, but now also to state psychiatric hospitals. Furthermore, the CSBs may struggle to meet the increased demand for behavioral health and developmental disability services in their communities.”
New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS), the CSB that serves the counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomer,y and Pulaski, as well as the City of Radford, has not been immune from the growing workforce shortage. At a time when the agency is providing services to more residents than ever before (12,133 individuals received services in Fiscal Year 2022), NRVCS has 117 open positions posted on its website (as of 11/29/22).
“Our mission and purpose is to provide quality services for individuals who are living with mental health and/or substance use disorders, as well as those with developmental disabilities,” said NRVCS Executive Director James Pritchett. “The nature of this work is that it can be rather intensive, and this requires having a team of dedicated and reliable professionals who can meet that need – especially when you consider that several of our programs operate on a 24/7 basis.”
The workforce shortage isn’t unique to the CSB system as many industries and professions have been impacted by “The Great Resignation” that evolved during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, higher levels of compensation and incentives like retention bonuses being offered at state hospitals and also in the private sector make it more difficult for CSBs to recruit and retain quality staff.
Chris Taylor, NRVCS’ Senior Director of Human Resources, reports that the agency has seen a “significant decline” in the number of applicants for positions that require advanced degrees, including clinicians, nurses, and physicians.
NRVCS employs approximately 800 full- and part-time employees, making it one of the largest employers in the region. The agency operates clinics and facilities throughout its five-jurisdiction service area and provides limited transportation services for some of the individuals it serves.
“It’s not unusual for CSBs to be asked to do more with less,” said Pritchett. “In fact, I’d say we’ve become pretty good at it over the years, and even I’m impressed sometimes with what we’ve been able to achieve from the standpoint of expanding programs and connecting more than 12,000 residents each year with the treatment and support they need.”
“At the same time, we can only ask so much of our staff,” Pritchett said. “Increased caseloads, picking up extra shifts, filling in to ensure coverage of a program: Those are things we all have to do from time-to-time in this line of work, but you can only be stretched thin for so long. We need help.”
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