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Approximately one in five Americans lives with a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. New Jersey is not immune to this alarming reality. Yet a shortage of psychiatrists in certain areas of the state has left a wide gap in accessibility and made it nearly impossible for individuals who need or seek help to get it.

A 2014 survey by the Mental Health Association of New Jersey revealed that of the 1,550 certified psychiatrists in the state, 49 percent were not accepting new patients or only accepting new patients under very specific circumstances.

Everyone has a right to access proper and affordable mental health care. It takes great courage and resolve to make that first call to a psychiatrist for help. To be turned away puts a person’s path to treatment and recovery, and in some cases their life, at risk.

On a national level, a study by the American Medical Association found that while the pool of physicians expanded 45 percent between 1995 and 2014, the number of psychiatrists only grew 12 percent, all while the population of the United States increased by 37 percent.

Additionally, a 2014 Meyer-Lindenberg study found a direct correlation between urban living and the increase in the number of anxiety and mood disorders. By creating programs that incentivize medical professionals to invest in under­served communities through the delivery of mental health services not normally found in those areas, we can improve the quality of life for the individuals, communities and the state as a whole.

To combat the stigma that surrounds mental illness, we must first accept it as any other medical condition that requires immediate attention and make treatment available equally and affordable across the state.

The lack of supply and the high demand for physicians specializing in psychiatry presents a grave disadvantage for those seeking treatment. With long wait times, lasting up to several months in some cases, or a lack of availability entirely, something must be done.

That is why I have introduced legislation that would put in place a tuition reimbursement program to provide an incentive for New Jersey’s psychiatrists to practice in such under­served areas.

Under the bill (S2331), the commissioner of health would designate, on the basis of health status and economic indicators, geographic areas of the state that have a shortage of physicians in the specialty of psychiatry.

Participants in the reimbursement program would receive compensation for a portion of their medical school tuition expenses as long as they agree to provide mental health services in one of these designated under­served areas on a full-time basis for a period of one to four years. The total reimbursement would not exceed 100 percent of the tuition expenses for omentalne academic year of medical school.

This initiative is sure to generate an influx in available psychiatrists, which in turn will decrease wait times for appointments and increase mental health assistance, connecting those who need services with the care they deserve.

Mental health is at the core of a functioning society, and providing mental health care services to those who need it, when they need it and where they need it is a moral obligation. A person’s ability to pay in no way defines his or her present need for mental health care services. Psychiatrists who place this truth above their own profit reflect a moral compass that is necessary in psychiatric care. It is the lack of this ideology that has created the current gap and that legitimizes the need for a tuition reimbursement program.

Through oversight by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority prescribed under the bill, participants in the program would be required to adhere to certain terms and standards of care, including charging for professional services at the usual and customary rates, allowing patients who are unable to pay that charge to pay a reduced rate or receive care at no charge, and not discriminating against any patient on the basis of ability to pay.

The steep divide between access to mental health care and the lack thereof has been an accepted shortcoming in New Jersey for far too long. The proposed tuition reimbursement program lays out a feasible solution in a manageable and compelling way and will provide the necessary incentives for practitioners not only to serve in these under­served communities but to stay longer in these communities and help New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents.

Sen. Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) serves on the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. He was New Jersey’s governor from 2004-06 and Senate president from 2002-10.

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on July 14, 2016 at 10:18 AM, updated July 14, 2016 at 11:01 AM