Extending Tuition Reimbursement to More Psychiatrists with Aim to Assist More At-Risk Kids

Lilo H. Stainton | February 3, 2020 | Health Care
Bipartisan effort to help offset cost of medical school for those who provide mental health services for teens and younger children
Credit: Alexas Fotos from Pixabay
The program would be extended to those who contract with state Department of Children and Families to provide mental health services for teens and younger kids.

New Jersey lawmakers are looking to expand the pool of psychiatrists available to be hired for certain state programs designed to benefit children and adolescents at risk; legislation is scheduled for consideration today in Trenton.

The Assembly Human Services Committee plans to take up a bipartisan bill that would build on an existing tuition reimbursement program for Garden State-based psychiatrists. The program already helps offset the cost of medical school for those who work at state psychiatric hospitals or in communities that have been designated as underserved because they lack basic health care services. The proposal would expand this program to those who contract with the state Department of Children and Families to provide mental health services for teens and younger kids.

The program, first signed into law in 2017 by former Gov. Chris Christie, reimburses New Jersey residents for up to a year of medical school — which costs more than $40,000 for in-state students at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School — in return for four years of service in the Garden State.

The initiative is one of a number of similar reimbursement programs the state has created to help offset the high costs associated with medical education and lure young providers to move, or stay in New Jersey, which is considered by doctors to be an expensive state in which to do business. One, for primary care physicians, dates back nearly three decades.

However, it is hard to judge the interest in these programs, or their impact. Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back funding by 83% this year for a primary-care loan initiative, based on declining participation. (Data on existing participation in the psychiatry program was not immediately available.)

Shortage of psychiatrists

Nationwide, there is a lack of certain specialists, including psychiatrists, a field in which doctor supply has not kept pace with patient demand. As many as one in four Americans — and one in five children — suffered a mental health condition over the past year, ranging from minor depression to serious schizophrenic breaks, but roughly only one in nine are properly diagnosed and treated, experts note. And early treatment is essential, as three-quarters of serious mental illnesses develop by age 24.

Mental health services are relevant to the Department of Children and Families’ work, which includes child protection, domestic and sexual assault prevention, substance abuse treatment, and therapeutic interventions for families and children with disabilities, among other services. Last year the department received nearly $2.5 million in federal and philanthropic funding to expand pediatric psychiatry services.

The limited availability of psychiatrists has long been a challenge to those seeking to expand these programs. To address that, the new bill (A-1033) — first introduced in November — would add psychiatrists contracting with DCF to the list of those eligible for the tuition reimbursements.

Under the program, psychiatrists who live and are licensed in New Jersey — and agree to work in state hospitals, underserved communities or, if the bill passes and is signed into law, as a DCF contractor — could apply to the Higher Education Assistance Authority for reimbursement for a portion of their medical school costs. For each 25% of the annual tuition the state agrees to cover, the psychiatrist must agree to a year of work; the program could cover up to one full year of tuition, in return for four years of service.

The bill is sponsored by Assembly members Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), who chairs the Human Services Committee; Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen); it is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Ocean). The measure has yet to attract a Senate sponsor in this session.