Q&A: Asm. Waldron will prioritize behavioral health workforce and substance abuse treatment in counties for upcoming session

Assemblymember Marie Waldron (R – Escondido) has been representing Assembly District 75 since 2012. She is a member of the Assembly Health Committee and has served on numerous select committees such as biotechnology, health care access in rural communities, infectious diseases, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

In this Q&A, Waldron discusses mental health care access, substance abuse, and nursing homesall of which she believes will be high priority issues in the upcoming legislative session.

 

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Soraya Marashi: What are your health policy priorities for the upcoming session? What specific health-related bills are you planning on sponsoring?

Asm. Marie Waldron: “I’ve been incredibly passionate about access to mental health care. The amount of progress still needed in mental health care access is disappointing. In spite of so many people advocating, we’re still just beginning to understand things like how social determinants of health and adverse childhood experiences contribute to a lot of the disparities of access, and also those with the greatest needs often have the least access to providers. About two-thirds of adults with a mental illness and two-thirds of adolescents with major depressive episodes, especially since COVID, are not getting treatment, in part [because of] the stigma, which still surrounds mental health issues, and a lack of providers. So I try to come up with ideas to increase access [and] increase awareness. 

This past session, I was co-author with Senator Wiener on SB 221, which establishes clear, timely access standards for mental health care follow up appointments. Right now, they may need an appointment, but it could take weeks or months. And these medically necessary treatments need to be timely. So I think we’re gonna have issues surrounding that. And those are some of the things that I’ll focus on as we get into this upcoming session. I don’t have any specific bills right now, but we’re working on ideas.”

SM: What health-related work have you been up to in the interim?

MW: “It’s been a busy interim, and I always look forward to participating in any health policy discussions or briefings that come up … whether it be informational hearings, hosted by the Assembly Health Committee, or working groups on specific policy issues. I’m on the Select Committee of Infectious Diseases in High Risk Communities, so I’ve been looking at the issues that that committee is working on. Once again, it’s mostly access issues and health disparities.

I’ve been proud to participate in briefings hosted by the Steinberg Institute and their Behavioral Health Workforce Strategy Group. This strategy group is dedicated to solving one of the biggest barriers to addressing California’s mental health crisis, which is the lack of growth in the behavioral health workforce, which is a huge issue coming up. We’ll be dealing with the workforce problems [in the Health Committee].”

SM: You’ve been a strong advocate for substance abuse issues and behavioral health–how will you continue to advocate for these in the upcoming year?

MW: “… The opioid crisis has just exploded into astronomical numbers. In fact, it’s the number one cause of death in adult life … I work in the carceral space a lot because we find that somewhere upwards of 87% of the people in prison have some type of substance use issue. And we want to make sure that we can reduce the crime rates by getting people into treatment and getting them out of the addiction. 

This past session specifically, I authored a bill, AB 653, creating a new grant program to provide counties with flexible funding to be used to help cover costs of providing substance use disorder treatment including [Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)] treatment in county jails, and for those on supervised release. And our goal this year is to get that grant funded. So we set up the framework, and now we’re going to be working for the funding through the budget so that counties can access the grant to support ongoing substance use treatment programs.”

SM: You’ve also been a strong advocate for aging and long-term care issues–how will your advocacy continue in the coming year?

MW: “There’s definitely a link to the Health Committee in regards to skilled nursing facilities, which is going to be another high-priority issue for our Health Committee this year, especially the licensing issues that go along with that. I’ve always been concerned with the ineffective oversight of the California Department of Public Health over the skilled nursing facilities and some of the ones that are not acting appropriately. 

[The] California Department of Public Health remains on the State Auditor’s High Risk List for a reason, because although the report the auditor published back in 2014, regarding skilled nursing facilities, [the] Department of Public Health has failed to yet implement the key actions that were recommended in the report regarding complaints and how they investigate complaints by folks in nursing homes and their families.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.