Q&A with VACSB director Jennifer Faison on supporting community health

Jennifer Faison is the executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards (VACSB) which oversees 39 CSBs across the Commonwealth and the Behavioral Health Authority. Faison has advocated for Virginia’s behavioral health workforce — not just at state hospitals but the services embedded in the community as well, especially as the pandemic continues to strain resources across the state. 

In this Q&A, Faison updates State of Reform on how CSBs have fared throughout the pandemic, VACSB’s legislative priorities, and COVID’s impact on behavioral health.

 

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Nicole Pasia: How has the pandemic impacted the work VACSB is doing, both in terms of services/programs and workforce resiliency?

Jennifer Faison: “CSBs form the backbone of Virginia’s public safety net for individuals with behavioral health and developmental disability service needs and their families. The pandemic has had a multi-faceted impact on CSBs throughout the state. As front-line workers, CSB staff have had to quickly pivot their service delivery models to maintain client engagement while abiding the additional health and safety measures required in the pandemic environment. This has meant expanding the use of telehealth options, not just for clinical services on the behavioral health side but for community engagement and ongoing case management for our folks with developmental disabilities. 

The list of additional modifications in the service environment is far too long to fully cover, but suffice it to say that CSBs have been creative problem-solvers throughout the pandemic. As front-line workers, CSB staff have also suffered from burnout and exhaustion in the same way that other healthcare workers who have to maintain in-person contact in such a risky health environment. They have been worried for the people they serve, their colleagues and their own families and that has certainly impacted their well-being. 

Despite all of this, all CSBs have continued to provide their code mandated services without fail, which is quite a feat considering CSBs must operate their emergency services 24/7 and run residential programs that require round-the-clock staffing and often house individuals with significant medical, behavioral health and developmental disability service needs.”

NP: Have you seen the pandemic affect some CSBs more than others? If so, in what ways?

JF: “I believe all CSBs have been impacted about the same. There have been differences in degree due to some extent to the uneven nature of the way in which COVID-19 has torn through the state. No CSB has escaped unscathed.”

NP: Last week, you spoke at the Virginia Behavioral Health Subcommittee meeting, and said workforce retention was one of VACSB’s top priorities. What would it take the legislature to mitigate this concern?

JF: “Money in the short-term and robust workforce development programs in the mid- and long-term. VACSB put forth a proposal for the use of ARPA funding which was appropriated in the recent special session. Unfortunately, the General Assembly did not prioritize our requests, so we’ll be advocating for these priorities this fall and into the 2022 General Assembly session.”

NP: What long-term effects will the pandemic have on CSBs, as well as the communities they serve?

JF: “This is a tough one. I think the substance use issues that have dramatically increased during the pandemic will take a long time to address. Mental health and wellbeing will continue to need our sustained attention. My hope is that the long-term effects will include a reckoning with the way the public behavioral health and DD system is prioritized and funded. You can’t make something from nothing. CSBs are eager to serve more individuals with a more robust continuum of care, but they won’t be able to without support from policymakers. Funding is a large part of it but there are significant regulatory and other requirements that need to be addressed as well. Let me know when you have a week and we can cover that waterfront.”

NP: VACSB announced its budget priorities, which include some programs in the Governor’s proposed budget, as well as additional requests. Can you share an update on those priorities?

JF: “Those priorities are what we used for the 2021 legislative session in order that the General Assembly would know what we needed in FY22, which we’re in now and the appropriations have already been made … They are in draft form pending approval by the VACSB Board of Directors, but I do not anticipate them changing significantly in the approval process.”

NP: Are there any other issues/concerns you are spending the most focus on these days?

JF: “I myself spend a lot of time trying to help the CSBs navigate the ever-changing pandemic environment. Most recently, that has meant gearing up for the federal vaccine mandate. All we have at this point are talking points from the President, no actual policy, so we’re trying to figure out what the implications may be and how it may further impact staffing without really knowing what the final rule from CMS will look like. Lastly, I think we’re all concerned that policymakers will continue to create new expectations for the CSBs and continue to underfund the system. This isn’t new. We worry about this Every. Single. Day.”

State of Reform received comments from Jennifer Faison via written statement.