Assemblymember Chiu announces bill to boost workforce to treat substance use disorders

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Legislation would combat opioid and substance use crisis by increasing number of substance use counselors in California  

SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) announced a bill on Wednesday, March 10 that would address the shortage of substance use disorder (SUD) counselors and clinicians in California. AB 666 would create a pipeline of 1,000 new substance use disorder counselors by funding tuition assistance, testing and fee waivers, and a comprehensive analysis of needs in the SUD workforce community.

“If we do not have the workforce to treat substance use disorders, we will never see an end to this crisis,” said Assemblymember Chiu. “This effort will build a pipeline of substance use disorder counselors and clinicians so all Californians can get the treatment they need.”

California and the nation are suffering through a deadly opioid and substance use crisis that has only grown more dire during the course of the pandemic. This problem has compounded California’s homelessness crisis, as being unhoused exacerbates substance use and vice versa.

While social services and housing interventions can certainly alleviate challenges, substance use disorder is a clinical diagnosis that requires clinical treatment. Clinical treatment is the most effective way to treat substance use disorder. Without treatment, substance use disorders cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare spending.

However, in California, the demand for SUD treatment has far exceeded the capacity to treat these disorders. About 2.7 million Californians met the criteria for having a substance use disorder last year, while only 1 in 10 of these individuals were able to receive treatment.

A major reason for the capacity issue is a lack of qualified SUD counselors and treatment providers. California lags behind the rest of the nation in the number of SUD counselors per capita, with less than 20,000 SUD counselors currently certified in the state. It is difficult to recruit and retain this workforce because they face high stress situations and average compensation that is below the national average. The SUD workforce is also older when compared to other healthcare sectors.

Additionally, in a state as diverse as California, culturally competent services are crucial to serving diverse populations with substance use disorders. In California, the SUD workforce is made up of predominantly white, English speakers.

AB 666 seeks to remedy this shortage and create a pipeline of 1,000 new SUD clinicians in California. The bill would provide tuition assistance for students in behavioral health related fields and fee waivers for testing and other certification expenses. The bill will also fund grants to diversify the substance use disorder workforce and require the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development to conduct an analysis of substance use disorder workforce needs in California.

California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals, and California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives are cosponsoring AB 666.

“Expanding and equipping our SUDs workforce with the resources they need to provide care to the growing number of people diagnosed with substance use disorders must be a top priority for our elected leaders in California,” said Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey, Chief Executive Officer of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies.

“The fact is that about 8% of Californians have met the criteria for a substance use disorder in the past year. We must act now to increase the percentage of qualified counselors and other addiction treatment providers to be prepared for the increase in behavioral health conditions that have manifested in part due to COVID-19.”

“Beds and buildings don’t treat people – counselors do,” said Pete Nielsen, President and CEO of the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals. “If California is to build a robust substance use disorder treatment system to respond to the growing number of SUD diagnoses, it will have to address  the critical workforce shortages the state now faces.”

“California has seen a sharp rise in drug overdose deaths and other substance use disorders during the COVID pandemic, and the need for qualified addiction treatment counselors is greater than ever,” said Al Senella, President of California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives. “Yet the state lags the nation in the percentage of qualified counselors, largely due to a lack of funding for workforce expansion, and regulations that constrict the ability of counselors to work in treatment programs.

Legislation that implements and funds a workforce development program by providing grants to train and recruit individuals to work as substance use disorder counselors is an important step toward meeting these workforce needs.”

AB 666 is expected to be heard in an Assembly policy committee this spring. (Assemblymember Chiu’s Office Release)

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