Gov. Northam’s pay raises could address understaffed state behavioral health facilities

Starting in July, Virginia state employees will receive paychecks that include a five percent pay raise. Gov. Ralph Northam and the state legislature approved the 2020-2022 state budget last March and saved $2 billion after freezing newly adopted spending expenses last year due to the pandemic, which will help contribute to the pay raises.


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In the health care sector, the pay raises could increase competition for what officials say are critically understaffed state behavioral health facilities, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to a statement from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), state hospitals are experiencing over 20 percent staff vacancies — and as high as 54 percent in some areas. 

The state must rely on costly resources such as locum tenens, contract staff, and international nursing programs to help fill the vacancies. DBDHS spokesperson Lauren Cunningham said the pressure from spending on these resources, as well as an insufficient patient-provider ratio, is a major concern to staff and patient safety. 

“The high census makes an already difficult environment extremely challenging and there is already significant stress on DBHDS facilities. Adequate staffing levels are of significant concern throughout the health care industry, as the pandemic is driving many workers to positions that pose less risk to their personal health and well-being. COVID-19 exacerbated this problem and made it more difficult to attract frontline workers.”

The state directed funding towards behavioral health professionals in 2018 and 2019, which raised the salaries of key positions and historically lower paid positions. However, providers often choose to work at private facilities for higher salaries or better work hours. Cunningham said:

“While the private health care industry can provide bigger sign-on bonuses and better compensation packages, DBHDS does not have the flexibility of other health care providers to adapt to market changes. As a result, we lose many staff to other care systems and industries. This environment creates a hyper competitive market for scarce resources. We are continuing intensive recruitment efforts, but the salary gaps are impossible to ignore. We are so grateful for those targeted pay increases in 2018 and 2019, but we need to continue looking at this issue. This includes sign-on and retention bonuses and other compensation improvements. We must address these shortages in order to operate safely and be in a position to address Temporary Detention Order admission delays and concerns from partners like law enforcement.”