MEDFORD, Ore. — Saddled with $75,000 in student loans, Chy Porter looked for an employer that offered a loan-forgiveness program when she hunted for a job in the mental health field.
She chose to go to work as a mental health therapist for Jackson County Health and Human Services, which is competing for mental health workers amid a nationwide shortage.
In exchange for a two-year commitment to Jackson County, $60,000 of her student loans were forgiven through a loan-forgiveness program. By working hard and scrimping, she was able to pay off the remaining $15,000 herself during those same two years.
“I can’t say enough glowing things about this program,” said Porter, who has since been promoted to quality assurance reviewer. “It can be life-changing not to have to worry about student loans.”
A countrywide rush to hire mental health professionals was triggered by the 2010 passage of the federal Affordable Care Act, which put mental health care coverage on par with physical health care coverage. The nation does not yet have enough mental health workers to meet the demand for care, leading to intense competition for new graduates and established professionals.
Coordinated care organizations are paying Jackson County to provide mental health care to the 65,000 county residents now on the Oregon Health Plan. The number of residents on the plan skyrocketed from 30,000 four years ago.
Jackson County Health and Human Services hired more than 60 workers in the fiscal year that ended on June 30 and hopes to hire another 100 to 150 for this fiscal year, according to county budget documents.
Current job openings include a clinical therapist, a children’s services mental health professional and a mental health employee to work with a law-enforcement crisis team for $46,987 to $61,921 annually. The highest paid mental health job is for a psychiatric medical director with a salary of more than $200,000.
Porter came to Jackson County in 2011 and was one of the county’s first mental health workers to use a loan-forgiveness program. She continues to work for the county, even though she has completed her service commitment.
“I do it out of a sense of pride and really wanting to be a part of the community,” she said.
Porter cautioned that workers must be committed to the field and their employer to take part in a loan-forgiveness program. If they don’t complete their term of service, they have to pay back the money – with interest.
“You have to have a sense of duty and responsibility, and have a passion for this type of work. You have to have that drive, determination and passion. It’s totally doable,” she said.
Jackson County uses a variety of state and federally funded loan-forgiveness programs to lure mental health workers. The incentives range from $20,000 for a one-year commitment by a person with a master’s degree who is working to attain a license, to $105,000 for a three-year commitment by a psychiatrist who has finished medical school.
“The intent of the programs is to recruit people to high-need areas in rural parts of the country. We’ve tried to promote the fact that we use the programs because we’ve had such a need,” said Mental Health Division Manager Stacy Brubaker.
Prospective mental health employees often ask whether Jackson County participates in loan-forgiveness programs.
“They cite that as one of the reasons they’re interested in working for Jackson County,” Brubaker said.
Loan-forgiveness programs are also helping Jackson County hang on to its seasoned mental health workers.
Jackson County Mental Health Clinical Supervisor Lisa Ortiz, a 10-year veteran, has been recruited by other employers, but said she enjoys working in various positions for the county and appreciates its participation in loan-forgiveness programs.
“I find it really satisfying. I’ve been able to move to different positions and gain experience to help the community,” she said.
Ortiz estimated she spent more than $100,000 earning a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in psychology, with most of that financed through student loans.
At one point after she’d gone through a divorce, she was working almost full-time, going to school full-time and caring for her three children.
Ortiz is eligible for up to $50,000 in student loan forgiveness for a two-year commitment, and can apply for additional loan forgiveness for a future commitment.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to keep working for the county and get the benefits,” she said.
Jackson County mental health workers noted it takes years of education and training to become a licensed mental health professional – four years of college for a bachelor’s degree and two years for a master’s degree, plus two to three years of work to accumulate the hours needed to become licensed.
The process takes longer for psychiatrists and other professionals who attend medical school.
But those who make it through find there is high demand for their skills.
“Because of the Affordable Care Act, more people can access mental health services,” Ortiz said. “That has broadened the type of client we see. It’s a challenge to find enough staff to serve that huge population.”