U.S. Senators Smith, Murkowski Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Expand Mental Health Care Workforce to Areas of Greatest Need

WASHINGTON, D.C. [5/12/21]—Today, during Mental Health Awareness Month, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced their bipartisan legislation which would repay up to $250,000 in eligible student loan repayment for mental health professionals who work in mental health professional shortage areas. U.S. Representatives John Katko (R-NY 24) and Grace Napolitano (D-CA 32) introduced companion legislation in the House.

Sen. Smith has shared her own mental health journey from the Senate floor—and again last week as part of Mental Health Awareness Month—in hopes of breaking the stigma around mental health and working to expand access so Americans get the help they need.

“I’ve shared my own story with depression because I want anyone suffering from a mental health issue to know they are not alone. We can all help break the stigma around talking about this, but de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying mental illness is just the beginning. We have to make sure mental health resources are available to everyone,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Health Committee. “We need to pass our bipartisan bill to help close the holes in the net we build to catch people when they fall and need help.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a drastic rise in mental health and substance use disorders. Already widespread and growing mental health workforce shortages are now being felt even more across the nation, with a disproportionate strain on rural communities. Over a third of Alaskan residents are living in a designated mental health provider shortage area—this is a cause for real concern,” said Sen. Murkowski. “Building on my long-standing efforts to help recruit and retain qualified health care professionals to serve in rural communities, I’m joining Senator Smith in introducing legislation to help expand the mental health workforce. Our hope is that providing loan forgiveness for those who are willing to help fill the gaps in underserved areas will help lead to a stronger, more effective mental health care system.”

Right now, over 120 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) estimates that by 2025, there will be a shortage of over 250,000 mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, mental health and substance abuse social workers, clinical and school psychologists, and school counselors.

Sens. Smith and Murkowski recognize that this shortage is not felt equally across the country—rural communities are much more likely to have a shortage of mental health professionals than urban areas. People of color are also more likely to live in areas with mental health professional shortages and to report challenges accessing culturally competent care. Sens. Smith and Murkowski’s bipartisan bill aims to address this by expanding the mental health care workforce in areas with the greatest need.

The Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act would:

• Repay up to $250,000 in eligible student loan repayment for mental health professionals who work in mental health professional shortage areas; and

• Repay one-sixth of the individual’s eligible loans for each year of service.

You can access a list of supporting organizations and a summary of the bill here.