Colorado focused on strategic improvements to behavioral health workforce pipeline


Boram Kim


Earlier this month, the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) laid out its strategic plan to bolster the state’s behavioral health workforce through a series of initiatives over the next year. 


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Working with the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE), the Colorado Healthcare Service Corps, the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), as well as other state stakeholders and agencies, BHA will use $36 million in funding allocated under Senate Bill 181 to strengthen the workforce pipeline for careers in behavioral health and improve equity and access to mental health care.

According to Mental Health America’s 2022 rankings, Colorado has the nation’s highest rate of adult mental illness and lowest access to care. 

The broad aims of the BHA’s workforce plan are to remove entry barriers for behavioral health professions, reduce administrative burdens that impede people-centered care within the current workforce, and expand the pool of prospective workers.

BHA identified transitioning student practitioners and pre-licensure clinicians from the educational setting to licensed care professions as a consistent barrier due to the financial burdens that recent graduates face in completing state requirements for licensure. 

“The BHA’s efforts to promote DEI in the behavioral health workforce include focused outreach to secondary schools (including colleges and universities) and areas of Colorado and the country at large where there are a high number of diverse professionals whom we can recruit to come work for the BHA,” the administration said in a written statement.

“Other initiatives include career pipeline development grants that will allow community partners to expand existing programs that provide support for young people of color, first-generation college students and other priority populations that will help build out diversity in the workforce. Our online learning system which is expected to launch in 2023 will also include a course (i.e., series of classes) that focuses on cultural and structural competence so that we can improve the skills of our current workforce.”

Below are the plan’s main focus areas for supporting the behavioral health workforce.

Expanding the peer support professional workforce and piloting a behavioral health aide program 

One of the primary initiatives the administration is focused on is easing entry for more workers from underrepresented populations to serve the needs of their communities, paving the way for more equitable, effective, culturally sensitive, and responsive care.

The administration will invest $9.6 million into the development of peer and training support networks that will expand learning and tactics in the field.

Part of this strategy is to launch a pilot program, based on one that had success with Native populations in Alaska, that would create the profession of Behavioral Health Aides in Colorado. These counselors and mental health advocates will serve the communities they come from to address significant health disparities and the specialized needs specific to those populations. 

The plan cites Alaska’s success in obtaining Medicaid reimbursement for behavioral health aides in multiple Native American tribes that allowed them to expand the scope and range of their services. 

Funding workforce pre-licensure stipends and paid internships

Under the plan, $6 million in stipends, paid internships, and financial assistance will go to support candidates who are from economically or structurally marginalized populations or who serve high-risk communities. 

In coordination with higher education partners, qualified individuals will receive funding to support the completion of internships and pre-licensure requirements. Schools are responsible for determining eligibility based on criteria established jointly between the BHA, CDHE, and community leaders, with priority given to pre-licensure individuals who serve underserved populations outlined in SB 181.

Issuing career pipeline development grants

BHA will invest $7.9 million into a grant program aimed at recruiting young people of color, first-generation students, and other populations critical to building out greater diversity within the workforce. 

Grant funds will assist partner organizations with creating greater workforce capacity, expanding behavioral health services to rural and frontier areas, and developing sustainable workforce programs. Programs with a track record of successfully integrating new workers and utilizing a whole-person approach to care, including appropriate wrap-around services such as family support, mental health services, access to community assistance, will be given priority. 

Behavioral health apprenticeships 

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Colorado Community College System, and CDHE will continue to work with key partners in education and employment to expand the number of behavioral health apprenticeships. 

Under this initiative, $1 million will go toward identifying and cultivating young people who have an interest in pursuing a career in behavioral health through guided on-the-job training and mentorship. 

Developing a robust learning community

This initiative will invest $4.8 million into creating a community-centered learning management system that supports behavioral health training and evaluation at both the state and federal levels. 

The learning platform will connect professionals to shared resources in the hopes of better addressing the state’s health needs. It will also improve competencies in mental health, substance use disorder treatment, and telehealth provisions for professionals.

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals currently utilize a significant portion of the state’s behavioral services and resources. The plan will invest $1.9 million into cross-system training certification, evidence-based learning modules, and community informed approaches that better support justice-involved people and those at risk of justice involvement.

Supporting innovative recruitment strategies and providing retention grants for behavioral health employers

The BHA plans to issue $4.5 million in grants to behavioral health employers to assist them in recruitment and retention strategies. Employers will address issues like burnout and turnover by coming up with their own solutions that address the needs of its employees. 

The BHA said employers that have utilized relocation packages, international recruiting, and housing assistance will be recipients of the funding. 

Engaging in workforce development research, data analysis, and policy development 

An allocation of $886,606 will build a BHA Workforce Development Team that is tasked with executing sustainable, high-impact change in behavioral health.

This team will coordinate with employers to assess their needs and evaluate their practices to support long-term systemic improvements to their delivery of behavioral health care.

Expanding community engagement

The focus of this $2 million initiative is to increase recruitment and opportunities within communities. The BHA says these community partnerships are critical to its efforts to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce.

BHA said it will continue to work with the Cultural Competency Advisory Council and community groups including EnvisionYou, Marie Droste Counseling Center, COMBINE Provider Network, the Colorado Providers Association (COPA), and the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, on expanding access and improving the quality of behavioral health services for marginalized populations.