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Volunteer Behavioral Health (VBH) recently shared what it’s been doing to maintain its workforce with the increasing demand due to COVID-19.

Volunteer is a community mental healthcare provider serving 32 counties in the Upper Cumberland, Middle, and Southeast regions of Tennessee through 21 outpatient centers.

“The last two years have been difficult for all staff, but especially front-line staff,” said Phyllis Persinger, CEO of Volunteer. “But they have persevered and continue to be there for our clients. That’s something we always want to recognize. Mental health is health, and our staff have been and continue to truly be heroes in healthcare.”

Melissa Johnson, Chief HR Officer with VBH, shared that Volunteer has restructured its compensation plan for 24-hour programs, increased LPN hourly rates by 22%, increased rates for licensed Crisis Staff by 25%, implemented shift differentials, offered incentive bonuses for working holidays, and shared Hero/Holiday bonuses for full-time and part-time staff, in addition to other initiatives.

According to a National Council for Mental Wellbeing poll from October, over 83% of member organizations reported increased demand for mental health treatment and over 69% reported increased demand for substance use treatment through the previous three months. In meeting the need, 97% said the biggest barrier has been recruiting employees.

“Adding staff members to focus on recruiting has improved the hiring process to get people in our door faster. The interaction from our pre-screening process gives us a better feel of the candidate and determines if an interview should be scheduled,” said Johnson. “We continue to think of ways to improve and be nimble when it comes to hiring.”

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Many current challenges for the public mental health care system in Tennessee can be directly attributed to COVID-19, but a coinciding pre-COVID workforce shortage has also been a factor.

“In the business of community mental health, the costs of not having sufficient qualified staff with some tenure that clients can build a rapport with, especially in 24-hour programs, can be measured in decreased quality of care and possibly (the lives) of the individuals we serve,” said Dawn Carlton, chief financial officer of VBH.

The Tennessee Association of Mental Health Organizations’ 2019 report titled All Hands on Deck highlighted the statewide shortages and lack of adequate compensation. In December the Tennessee Department of Mental Health Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) and TennCare convened the Public Behavioral Health Workforce Workgroup with partner agencies to develop recommendations toward resolving the crisis.

TDMHSAS and TennCare then proposed $59 million in funding to implement their strategies around benefits and incentives, costs of services, student loan forgiveness, internship opportunities, diversity and inclusion, and more.

“We want to especially thank TennCare and the Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for their efforts to increase the rates,” said Persinger. “We know we have a long way to go, but this is definitely a great start with this collaboration and these strategies.”

VBH accepts all TennCare plans along with other commercial insurance and is also a participating member in the state’s Safety Net program, which provides mental health coverage for both adults and children. To inquire about services or Safety Net eligibility, call 1-877-567-6051. Additionally, Crisis Services are available 24 hours a day to respond to adults experiencing a mental health crisis at 1-800-704-2651. Follow VBH at vbhcs.org and online at www. facebook.com/volunteer behavioralhealth

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