Senator Wiener’s Mental Health Workforce Legislation Passes Senate

May 25, 2022

SACRAMENTO - Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s Senate Bill 964, the Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act, passed the Senate with a unanimous, bipartisan vote. It will now head to the Assembly for policy committee hearings.

SB 964 increases California’s investment in its behavioral health workforce in order to retain workers, increase the size of the behavioral health workforce, and support behavioral health workers who are facing a significant increase in demand for services.

“To effectively tackle our mental health and addiction crisis, we must stabilize and grow our mental health workforce,” said Senator Wiener. “Our behavioral health care workers are overworked, underpaid, and burnt out, and these working conditions mean that many end up leaving the profession altogether. There are so many smart and talented behavioral health professionals out there who should be incentivized to stay in the field; SB 964 will invest in their future. Retaining mental health workers — and educating the next generation — supports every Californian who struggles with or knows someone who struggles with mental illness or addiction.”

SB 964 is a critical investment in our behavioral health workforce. The legislation establishes a Behavioral Health Workforce Preservation and Restoration Fund to provide hiring and performance-based bonuses, salary increases or supplements, overtime pay, and hazard pay for workers in the behavioral health sector.

SB 964 also creates a stipend program for students in Master of Social Work (MSW) programs who specialize in public behavioral health. Students will be eligible for a stipend of $18,500 a year for up to two years, and will be required to complete two years of continuous, full-time employment in a public behavioral health agency.

In addition, SB 964:

  • Creates an online job board where licensed providers in California can post job openings for behavioral health workers in order to increases awareness about job opportunities
  • Expands access to culturally competent care by making peer support specialists a statewide Medi-Cal benefit and establishing a statewide certifying body to certify these peer specialists
  • Develops accelerated social work programs with new coursework focused on behavioral health
  • Creates new career ladders for peers and community health workers by developing an accelerated program from certification to associates, bachelors, and masters programs
  • Requires a study of California’s behavioral health licensing requirements to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic barriers that keep well-trained and talented workers from entering the field and working at the top of their scope
  • Requires a comprehensive landscape analysis of the behavioral health workforce to further develop strategies for retaining workers

Currently, only one-third of Californians who live with a mental illness receive the care they need. One of the largest drivers of this failure is a shortage of behavioral healthcare workers. Today, 31 California counties in “high need” for mental health services report having a workforce shortage.

With healthcare workers resigning in droves and mental health needs skyrocketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavioral health workforce shortage has gone from challenge to crisis. Even with the increase in need for quality mental health and addiction treatment, facilities across the state are closing due to worker shortages. When workers can instead, for example, become traveling nurses and receive a $100,000 signing bonus, it becomes even more difficult for hospitals and other facilities to retain staff. And without essential behavioral health workers providing this important care, people with mild mental health symptoms can fall into severe mental illness.

Those in rural, linguistically and ethnically diverse, and LGBTQ+ communities are severely underserved when it comes to all health care, and this is especially true of mental health care. And those suffering from severe mental illness are often forced to cycle between hospital emergency rooms, jails and city streets because of a lack of mental health care workers and resources.

SB 964 is sponsored by the Steinberg Institute. Senators Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) and Anna Caballero (D-Merced) are principal co-authors of SB 964, and Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) is a co-author. Assemblymembers Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), Adam Gray (D-Merced), Marc Levine (D-Marin County), Mike Gipson (D-Carson), and Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) are co-authors.