Bill to repay loans of mental health professionals clears House committee

(The Center Square) – A bill to create a loan repayment program for Virginia mental health professionals sailed through a House of Delegates subcommittee Thursday, receiving bipartisan approval from a panel of lawmakers.

House Bill 1534, authored by Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, and supported by other Democratic lawmakers, proposes the creation of a Mental Health Professional Loan Repayment Program for professionals who have worked in the mental health field in Virginia for at least five years.

The bill would authorize the Board of Health to apply for, and access federal funds or other available funds for the “enhancement of the primary health care system,” including funds designated for any physician loan repayment program, medical scholarships or area health education centers, according to the bill. A fiscal analysis for this bill was not available Thursday.

The bill comes in response to a rise in depression and mental health crises during the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies from the Journal of American Medical Association found pediatric anxiety and depression doubled during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and found that symptoms of depression among U.S. adults was “more than 3-fold higher” during the pandemic than before.

Further, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder between August 2020 and February 2021 increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, with the largest increases among adults between the ages of 18-29.

Supporters of the measure argue HB 1534 will help to bolster Virginia’s mental health workforce to confront the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic across the Commonwealth.

“We need an unprecedented public health response,” Clark told lawmakers Thursday. “This is not an option – this is essential. We have a responsibility to meet this moment to get our fellow Virginians the care they need. Demand is up, but recruitment and retention for positions in the mental health field are low.”

“We want to ensure more people can access the education they need by lowering the most common barrier to entry – the cost of a college degree,” Clark later added.

HB 1534 was passed unanimously by lawmakers in a subcommittee of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee Thursday without debate.

The bill follows action taken by the General Assembly in 2021 to establish the Virginia Behavioral Health Student Loan Repayment Program, earmarking $1.6 million to repay a portion of eligible behavioral health professional’s student loan debt. The program specifically applies to psychiatrists, licensed clinical psychologists, licensed professional counselors and licensed clinical social workers.

Within his budget amendments, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed $230 million in funding to transform the state’s behavioral health system. A $2.5 million portion of the proposed funding would go toward the existing Behavioral Health Loan Repayment Program to bolster funding meant to recruit and retain psychiatrists and psychologists.

HB 1534 will be heard next in the House Appropriations Committee.

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