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Health Centers Tap Loan Repayment to Recruit Mental-Health Providers

Only 12 percent of patients actually follow through with mental- or behavioral-health treatment when given an offsite referral. (Pixabay)
Only 12 percent of patients actually follow through with mental- or behavioral-health treatment when given an offsite referral. (Pixabay)
February 5, 2019

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Colorado is facing a shortage of behavioral-health providers. And, as a result, fewer than 30 percent of the state's demand for mental- and behavioral-health care is being met.

Minimum federal standards require at least one psychiatrist for every 30,000 residents. Colorado would need to add more than 90 mental-health professionals to reach that threshold. Dr. Sherri Sharp is vice president for behavioral health for Peak Vista Community Health Centers, which serves the Colorado Springs region.

"The awareness of mental-health issues has grown, and the stigma behind seeking service is improving,” Sharp said. “So people are more likely to look for help now. But trying to find help is the difficulty. And in rural areas, it's even worse."

Sharp said to address the problem, health centers are tapping new federal and state student-loan forgiveness programs. She said the prospect of being able to knock off thousands of dollars in medical-school debt should help attract and retain high-quality providers for the state's most underserved areas.

Health centers also are offering training for nurse practitioners to become certified medically assisted treatment providers. Sharp noted health centers have implemented policies aimed at quickly identifying potential behavioral-health issues and connecting patients with treatment options.

She said 1-in-5 U.S. adults has suffered from a mental illness in the past year.

"That, along with the opioid crisis, it's huge. There's about 28.6 million people who have used illicit drugs within the last month,” Sharp said. “So the fact that these numbers are growing, it's something that needs to be addressed, and we don't currently have enough providers to do that."

She said because community health centers offer patients a one-stop-shop medical home, residents are more likely to get effective treatment. If someone comes in for a dental appointment, for example, he or she will get a mental-health screening and often can get help at the same facility.

Just 12 percent of patients actually get care when given an offsite referral. But Sharp said if they can get help onsite, more than 75 percent end up completing treatment.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO