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Downey, Houghtaling & Vainieri Huttle Bill to Expand Tuition Reimbursement Program for Child Psychiatrists Clears Assembly Panel

In nine counties in New Jersey, there are less than five child psychiatrists available to treat the thousands of children who live there.

To address the shortage of child psychiatrists across the state, the Assembly Human Services Committee on Monday advanced legislation to permit psychiatrists who contract with the Department of Children and Families to participate in an existing tuition reimbursement program. The measure (A-1033) is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Joann Downey, Eric Houghtaling and Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

“Nationwide, 59% of active psychiatrists are age 55 and older. That means we will likely have more psychiatrists leaving than entering the profession in the near future,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “Expanding New Jersey’s tuition reimbursement program for psychiatrists is one way we can tackle this issue head-on, and increase access for children who need it most.”

Under the state’s existing program, psychiatrists who agree to provide mental health care services in underserved areas or in State psychiatric hospitals can receive 25% of the total cost of eligible tuition expenses for one academic year in return for one year of service, for up to four years. This bill would expand eligibility to include psychiatrists who contract with DCF to in connection with department programming.

In Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Passaic, Salem, Sussex and Warren counties, there is a critical shortage of child psychiatrists, with less than five per county, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. As one in six children age 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder in the U.S., there are not enough professionals available to treat all patients in need of help.

“If a mental illness goes untreated, a child has a higher risk of drug abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, and suicide,” said Houghtaling (D-Monmouth). “It’s crucial that child psychiatrists are available and accessible across our state. Mental illness is very treatable, but youth must first be able to get the help they need and without having to travel to get it.”

“For a mother of a child with mental illness in some parts of New Jersey, there are little to no options for her to schedule an appointment with a local psychiatrist,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “She will likely need to travel to another county for her child to receive treatment, or face the odds that the psychiatrist will be overloaded with patients. This is unacceptable in a State that values health care accessibility.”

To be eligible to participate in the program, an applicant would need to:

  1. be a resident of New Jersey;
  2. be a State-licensed physician who has successfully completed all educational and residency training requirements for the practice of psychiatry;
  3. apply for the program within one year of completing an accredited residency training program in psychiatry, or within one year of completing an accredited fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry; and
  4. agree to practice full-time as a psychiatrist in an underserved area, in a State psychiatric hospital , or as a contracting psychiatrist for a period of one to four years in return for the tuition reimbursement provided under the program.

Participants in the program would be require to abide by the following standards:

  1. maintain residency and license to practice medicine in the State of New Jersey;
  2. remain current with payments on any student loan;
  3. maintain satisfactory performance of services rendered in a State underserved area, in a State psychiatric hospital , or as a contracting psychiatrist; and
  4. report to the authority, on a form and in a manner prescribed by the authority, on the program participant’s performance of services rendered prior to reimbursement of tuition under the program.

Additionally, the measure requires the Commissioner of Children and Families to transmit a list of the projected number of psychiatrists needed by the department to the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which is responsible for the administration of the tuition reimbursement program.

The bill now heads to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.