Chiu Bill to Boost Substance Use Disorder Workforce Passes First Committee

Legislation would combat opioid and substance use crisis by increasing number of substance use counselors in California

For immediate release:

Sacramento, CA—Legislation authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) to address the shortage of substance use disorder (SUD) counselors and clinicians in California passed the Assembly Health Committee today. AB 666 would create a pipeline of 1,000 new substance use disorder counselors by funding tuition assistance, testing and fee waivers, and a comprehensive analysis of needs in the SUD workforce community.

“If we do not have the workforce to treat substance use disorders, we will never see an end to this crisis,” said Assemblymember Chiu. “This effort will build a pipeline of substance use disorder counselors and clinicians so all Californians can get the treatment they need.”

California and the nation are suffering through a deadly opioid and substance use crisis that has only grown more dire during the course of the pandemic. This problem has compounded California’s homelessness crisis, as being unhoused exacerbates substance use and vice versa.

While social services and housing interventions can certainly alleviate challenges, substance use disorder is a clinical diagnosis that requires clinical treatment. Clinical treatment is the most effective way to treat substance use disorder. Without treatment, substance use disorders cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare spending.

However, in California, the demand for SUD treatment has far exceeded the capacity to treat these disorders. About 2.7 million Californians met the criteria for having a substance use disorder last year, while only 1 in 10 of these individuals were able to receive treatment.

A major reason for the capacity issue is a lack of qualified SUD counselors and treatment providers. California lags behind the rest of the nation in the number of SUD counselors per capita, with less than 20,000 SUD counselors currently certified in the state. It is difficult to recruit and retain this workforce because they face high stress situations and average compensation that is below the national average. The SUD workforce is also older when compared to other healthcare sectors. 

Additionally, in a state as diverse as California, culturally responsive services are crucial to serving diverse populations with substance use disorders. In California, the SUD workforce is made up of predominantly white, English speakers.

AB 666 seeks to remedy this shortage and create a pipeline of 1,000 new SUD clinicians in California. The bill would provide tuition assistance for students in behavioral health related fields and fee waivers for testing and other certification expenses. The bill will also fund grants to diversify the substance use disorder workforce and require the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development to conduct an analysis of substance use disorder workforce needs in California.

California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies and the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals, are cosponsoring AB 666. 

“Expanding and equipping our SUDs workforce with the resources they need to provide care to the growing number of people diagnosed with substance use disorders must be a top priority for our elected leaders in California,” said Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey, Chief Executive Officer of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies. “The fact is that about 8% of Californians have met the criteria for a substance use disorder in the past year. We must act now to increase the percentage of qualified counselors and other addiction treatment providers to be prepared for the increase in behavioral health conditions that have manifested in part due to COVID-19.” 

"Beds and buildings don't treat people - counselors do,” said Pete Nielsen, President and CEO of the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals. “If California is to build a robust substance use disorder treatment system to respond to the growing number of SUD diagnoses, it will have to address  the critical workforce shortages the state now faces." 

AB 666 will now move on for a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.