Behavioral health nurse shortages impacting Alabama Department of Mental Health

WAFF's Jasmyn Cornell reporting
Published: Apr. 25, 2023 at 9:35 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WAFF) - Alabama has a shortage of nurses and other employees who take care of patients in its mental hospitals. The workforce shortage is drastically impacting the Alabama Department of Mental Health and its ability to provide services, according to Kim Boswell, Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner.

The department operates three hospitals in Tuscaloosa and has several locations throughout the state. It also has a network of community providers, who offer mental health, substance use disorder, and developmental disability services, said Boswell. They are in a workforce crisis, as well. Boswell says providers are considering shutting down programs because they don’t have the staff necessary.

Services have also been forced to seek out solutions to chronic under staffing, such as deploying ward managers, matrons and other professionals to cover nursing shifts.

To address the shortage, the Department of Mental Health hired a rapid staffing company last summer, said Boswell. The company provided 150 additional staff members; however, the department is struggling to hire healthcare workers due to a combination of issues. One issue is pay, according to Boswell.

”We went into the pandemic being pretty far behind other organizations in terms of what we were actually paying people,” said Boswell. “So, we went in behind the game, and then the pandemic happened and everyone raised their wages. So, our ability to get wages to a market level was just really, really a struggle for us.”

Boswell says they worked with state personnel to increase their mental health worker pay by $2 an hour. They also increased pay for people willing to work the second and third shifts.

The department is having conversations with the West Alabama Works program and Shelton State Community College about restarting an LPN program, said Boswell.

“We do think if we could get some additional LPNs that we might be able to use those as sort of extenders of the RN services,” said Boswell. “One, it’s a potential career path for our mental health workers, but it’s also an opportunity to hire some nurse extenders.”

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