CareOregon Donates $7.5 Million For Mental Health, Addiction

CareOregon outside building.JPG

Oregon’s largest Medicaid insurer, CareOregon, is donating $7.5 million to boost hiring at organizations that provide mental health and addiction treatment to low-income residents.

The one-time infusion aims to help behavioral health networks recruit and keep providers as a first first step of the organization’s multi-year plan to bolster the state’s behavioral health system, CareOregon said in a news release.

Jobs in addiction treatment and community-based mental health care tend to have low pay and high stress: Boosting pay and staffing levels are seen as key to improving the quality of care in the state. 

“To have a strong, resilient behavioral health system, we must first cultivate a community of mental health and substance use treatment professionals who feel supported, valued and that they have the resources they need to best serve patients,” said Jill Archer, CareOregon’s vice president of behavioral health. “That’s why we are making this investment in providers serving our highest need patients and creating capacity throughout the system for those with less acute needs. These providers are truly on the front line of our community’s behavioral health crisis.”

A nonprofit, CareOregon manages the health insurance of Medicaid members, and the vast bulk of its revenue comes from state and federal governments.

The money won’t solve Oregon’s mental health care crisis, which has been festering for years. But it will give providers a boost at a crucial time when mental health and addiction specialists are needed more than ever. Demand soared last year as people were told to stay home and avoid contact with others. That led to “unprecedented levels of provider burnout” and an exodus away from the profession, said Dr. Amit Shah, CareOregon’s chief medical officer.

“The events of 2020 amplified existing health disparities and brought to light challenges some communities face in accessing health services,” Shah said. “This is especially true for folks experiencing mental health issues or substance misuse -- and importantly, for those that serve them.”

As staff left, caseloads increased, leading to longer wait times for patients, said Becca Thomsen, a spokesperson for CareOregon.

“It is very important to have capacity at each level of care so community members can get the right level of care at the right time,” Thomsen said. “Some community intensive case management programs, for example, have had to stop accepting referrals due to staff capacity, and this makes it difficult for folks to transition out of in-patient care.”

Money For Bonuses, Housing Costs

The $7.5 million is going to 25 organizations that serve Medicaid patients in the tri-county Portland area; Clatsop, Tillamook and Columbia counties; and Jackson County. CareOregon and its affiliates -- Jackson Care Connect and Columbia Pacific CCO -- have nearly 500,000 Medicaid members in those areas. 

Thomsen said the organizations had to apply for the grants, which range from $50,000 to $500,000, by outlining how they would use the money to add and retain staff. The funds will go toward retention bonuses, housing support and other financial incentives to staff who are often poorly paid.

One of the top recipients is Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, based in Portland. It is the state’s largest outpatient mental health provider for Medicaid patients. 

Beth Epps, Cascadia’s chief community solutions officer, said CareOregon is giving organizations a lot of leeway to come up with ideas for attracting new staff and working more efficiently.

Cascadia, which employs just under 1,000 people, currently has about 150 open positions, Epps said. 

“The pandemic has allowed a lot of people to rethink what they do in life and how they want to spend their time,” Epps said. “We’re hoping that we will be able to keep all the staff that we have and fill all our vacancies.”

The infusion won’t be nearly enough to fix one of the biggest problems in nonprofit mental health care: the low salaries. Cascadia, as an example, pays professionals with a master’s degree about $23 an hour, Epps said. Those with less education make much less. 

But the money will help Cascadia offer hiring bonuses.

Creating A Recruitment Fund

Other recipients include Columbia County Mental Health, a certified community behavioral health Clinic in St. Helens; Albertina Kerr, a Portland-based nonprofit that serves children and adults with disabilities and mental health issues; and OnTrack Rogue Valley, an addiction treatment provider in Medford. 

“Due to a dearth of qualified child and family therapists, we are experiencing significant difficulties in meeting the growing need for mental health care,” said Jeff Carr, CEO of Albertina Kerr. “Thanks to the generous support from CareOregon and others in our community, Kerr is creating a recruitment and retention fund that will attract, develop and retain qualified child and family therapists.”

Columbia County also will use the money for recruitment.

“This investment will pay dividends in the quality of care we are able to provide children and families for years to come,” said Todd Jacobson, executive director of Columbia County Mental Health.

OnTrack Rogue Valley plans to use the money to attract professionals for its open positions which it has had trouble filling, said Sommer Wolcott, its executive director.

CareOregon’s behavioral health chief said the money will help those who serve Medicaid patients with the greatest need.

Epps hopes the money will help Cascadia serve patients more quickly and serve them in the community but she said the grants will not solve the bigger issue of fixing Oregon’s underfunded mental health care system.

“Every little bit helps, I don’t want to minimize this,” Epps said. “But as a society, we have to think differently about this work and value it like we value other professions.”

Oregon lawmakers are working on a spending package of perhaps $350 million to boost the state’s mental health networks and fund housing and outreach programs. But their plans to pass measures to fight addiction fizzled this session, which has to be over by the end of Sunday. 

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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Comments

Thank you Care Oregon for supporting community mental health organizations in their effort to maintain their staff and services for community in need and expand their services and staff during this volnurable time. Together we can be stronger. 

Pari Mazhar

Senior Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion