Q&A: Valley Behavioral Health CEO discusses workforce shortage and potential new innovations

Jared Sanford is the President and CEO of Valley Behavioral Health in Utah. Before Valley, Sanford was President and CEO of Lifeline Connections, a substance use and mental health treatment facility in Vancouver, WA. 

In this Q&A, Sanford talks with State of Reform about how workforce shortages are impacting Valley’s work, how the workforce shortage is a “crisis”, and some of the ways to supplement and care for the current and future behavioral health workforce. 

 

Get the latest state-specific policy intelligence for the health care sector delivered to your inbox.

 

State of Reform: What is taking up most of your mental energy nowadays in your work? What would you say is the most important thing in Utah health care and health policy?

Jared Sanford: “I think one of the things that’s taking up a lot of our energy is some of the staffing challenges we’re having. They’re having quite a large impact on how we deliver care. 

It’s having us make some tough decisions on who we can serve based on staffing goals to make sure that our programs are staffed in a manner that’s safe. So that means we’ve had to restrict who we serve and when we serve them, which is unfortunate.

Coming out of the pandemic, behavioral health issues are becoming really front and center in a lot of ways. So, there’s a real demand for these types of services. The tragedy is, we just don’t have a supply of licensed clinicians and other other staff to meet that demand.”

SOR: What are the problems you are seeing within the behavioral health care workforce in Utah and at Valley?

JS: “I would classify these workforce issues as a crisis, and I don’t use that term lightly. It truly is a crisis. We as an organization and other community behavioral health organizations do not have the staff we need to meet the demand for services. As providers, we also need to expand services to treat more people, but we can’t expand. We have a hard time running existing programs when we’re so short staffed. So, it really is a challenge. 

Just like other health care workers, we’re losing a lot. Workers are leaving the field entirely, which makes the problems worse.”

SOR: What are some things that Valley and other behavioral health providers are trying to do to increase the workforce and prevent future shortages?

JS: “Well, I wish there was an easy solution to this, but there is not. There’s not really a silver bullet that’s going to fix all of this. It is going to be a combination of things. We want to make sure that staff that are currently in the field don’t get burned out and stay in this field. We need to support them, and we need to help them engage us in some self care. We need to make sure that we’re supporting our current staff and clinicians with fair compensation and support packages where they have the time to decompress and recenter themselves before they come back into work. 

It’s important to help people get back into the field. Ultimately, we need to make sure that local colleges and universities are offering programs that are accessible. We need to be engaging our potential students early on in high school—and some of the junior colleges—to get them excited about working in this field, help them get into the field, remove any barriers that they might have getting into this field and become a licensed clinician. 

We also need to focus on diverse communities. We want to make sure we have a diverse workforce to meet the needs of communities of color and other diverse communities. If we don’t have a diverse workforce, we’re not going to see the positive outcomes we want to see in our treatment programs. We need to be intentional on how we do things, and make sure that we’re looking for barriers that impact those communities getting into the field, and then remove those barriers.”

SOR: How is Valley using their platform to bring in more prospective health care workers into the profession?

JS: “A lot of what we do at Valley is educate the community about the importance of behavioral health. We do that through attending community events, talking to community stakeholders, and more. I think that education is really important because it exposes people to the idea of working in this field. People often come into the field because they might know somebody that has a behavioral health condition, and we want to expand that further to folks. It gives them the opportunity to enter a really rewarding field, because they can really make a difference.”

SOR: How have the problems with the health care workforce, especially in the behavioral health space, impacted the way you conducted and provided care?

JS: “I think the primary place being impacted is the front door. We are having to really identify folks that have some really acute conditions. The other folks, as a result of the capacity, must be referred out to other providers, if they even have the capacity. That’s how we’re prioritizing. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of folks that we refer out that will have a challenge as well finding care. You never want to see people fall through the cracks, but I worry that people who need care might not find it quickly and just give up.”

SOR: How do you think Governor Cox’s One Utah Health Collaborative might impact what you’re doing at Valley and impact the behavioral health of Utahns?

JS: “I definitely think in health care in general, there are ways that we can reduce costs and be a little more efficient in how we deliver care. But in community behavioral health, that is one area where there’s not a lot of waste, and we need more investment in community behavioral health, not less. We know that when we invest in community behavioral health, that’s going to save money all over the place. That’s going to reduce the number of folks that end up in the criminal justice system, that’s going to reduce the folks that are using the emergency departments for their primary care, and more. There are many savings we can realize if we invest and put money into community behavioral health programs like Valley.”

SOR: How do you think the state of Utah can improve upon these problems? What can the state do to assist those who are not getting fair access to behavioral health treatment?

JS: “There’s a federal model called Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers (CCBHCs). That’s a wonderful model that is mirrored off the federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) that is bringing purity to that system, which is long overdue. If we can do that, it will act as a good first step in investing and putting resources into community behavioral health. 

I’m very familiar with the model and I started having discussions on it in Utah early on. I had some discussions with some local state representatives and local folks in state government and other providers. I think there is becoming a groundswell of support for this idea. So, we’re still early on in the process. But, I think there’s a lot of folks that realized this is a model that could really be beneficial to our community, that it could improve access to care, fund the services as they should be funded, and help us realize cost savings in the long run.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.