Burns: House Professional Licensure Committee considers bills to expand mental health care access, keep skilled professionals in the state

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 11 – Members of the House Professional Licensure Committee recently held two hearings at Duquesne University to review legislation designed to expand mental health care access in the state.

“This week’s hearings helped members of the committee learn how necessary these measures are to increasing access to mental health care and therapeutic services in Pennsylvania,” said Burns, committee chairman. “We are facing a growing mental health crisis and patients need every avenue for care they can get, whether through psychologists, psychiatrists, primary care providers or other therapists.”

Monday’s hearing reviewed a bill that would give prescribing privileges to doctoral-level psychologists with advanced, specialized training. Under the measure (H.B.1000), these psychologists would be able to prescribe a limited number of mental health medications, with physician collaboration, which could reduce long travel and wait times that interfere with treatment and ensure better follow-up care for patients already on medications. 

According to the Pennsylvania Psychological Association, 1.7 million Pennsylvanians live in a mental health professional shortage area with 97% of counties having a shortage of child/adolescent psychiatrists. A recent survey of psychiatric practices in Pennsylvania found that 36% were not accepting new patients, while another 36% of offices were scheduling six to eight weeks out.

“The process [of finding a practice and getting an appointment] is burdensome and taxing on people who are already grappling with panic attacks, sleepless nights and energy levels that are so low that they are barely able to get out of bed,” said Krista Boyer, a doctoral-level psychologist testifying on behalf of the PPA. “This has caused overscheduled outpatient providers like myself to increase the frequency of our sessions with clients with high-risk issues, such as suicidal ideation, so that we can buffer as best we can until a psychiatric visit is secured and medications are at a therapeutic level.”

Currently six other states, the territory of Guam, and the U.S. military have prescription authority for psychologists. The bill was introduced by state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny.

Tuesday’s hearing looked at the idea of licensing music therapists in the state as introduced by state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne, in H.B. 1356. Music therapy is an evidence-based health care profession that uses music as the stimulus to achieve specific therapeutic objectives, including strengthening the immune system, decreasing stress, improving mood, and decreasing pain.

Because music therapists are not licensed, they cannot bill patients’ insurance for services, meaning families must pay out of pocket for therapy sessions or hope to find a facility that covers the cost through foundation gifts or grants.

According to Judy Simpson, a board-certified music therapist and director of government relations for the American Music Therapy Association, licensure would be a step toward increasing access to music therapy and assure providers are adequately trained and patients protected.

It is estimated that music therapists serve more than 49,000 Pennsylvanians a year, and 10 Pennsylvania universities already offer degrees in music therapy; however, 13 states with licensure programs -- including Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia -- are enticing those who trained in Pennsylvania to leave the state for employment opportunities, Simpson noted.

The committee took no official action on the bills this week, but expects to do so in the coming months.