(Springfield, IL) – The Illinois House has given its unanimous backing to a legislative plan that would create a student loan repayment program for behavioral health professionals who commit to working in the state’s rural and underserved areas.
The House approved 101-0 legislation, House Bill 5109 sponsored State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), to provide student loan assistance to eligible mental health and substance abuse professionals practicing in community mental health centers in underserved or in rural communities designated by the federal government as professional shortage areas.
According to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, Illinois has the 6th largest number of mental health professional shortage areas in the U.S. with 85 of 102 counties in Illinois having areas designated shortages.
“Illinoisans who need mental health counseling can wait up to three months or longer before they see a specialist due to a severe behavioral health workforce shortage,” said Community Behavioral Health Association of Illinois C.E.O. Marvin Lindsey. “As Illinois faces an ongoing opioid crisis and a reemergence of meth usage in Southern Illinois, the state’s behavioral workforce shortage cripples our response to the crisis.”
A February 2017 survey from American Student Assistance reported that 86% of professionals would commit to a company for a half-decade in exchange for student loan repayment assistance.
The legislation,the Community Behavioral Health Care Professional Loan Repayment Program, would grant, for example, up to $35,000 per year to a psychiatrist who had already been working at a community mental health center for a year and who commits to working at least another 12 consecutive months in an underserved or rural federally designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Area in Illinois.
The proposed maximum grant awards to other behavioral health workers would have four additional categories:
- $15,000 per year for an advanced practice registered nurse or a physician assistant;
- $12,000 per year for a psychologist who holds a doctoral degree;
- $6,500 per year for a licensed clinical social worker or a licensed clinical professional counselor; and
- $2,500 per year for a substance use professional.
“Offering student loan repayment assistance to qualified mental health and substance use professionals who agree to provide direct care in underserved and rural areas of Illinois, can help reverse the alarming hollowing out of the workforce,” said Lang. “Rural areas are some of the hardest hit regions by the opioid crisis, and this bill could stabilize and strengthen local communities who battling this scourge.”
The program would be created no later than July 1, 2019.
The bill now moves to the Illinois Senate.