Bill aimed at addressing shortage of mental health providers and rewarding employers who hire people in recovery signed into law by Pritzker

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Friday a sweeping mental health bill aimed in part at addressing a shortage of health care workers that experts say was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new law removes roadblocks that make it difficult for retired mental health professionals to return to the field; incentivizes employers to hire people recovering from mental health or substance use disorders; and paves the way for increasing workforce diversity through state grants and contracts for community providers.

“I’ve always said that we need to pull mental health out of the shadows of stigma in order to truly advance holistic health care,” Pritzker said during the bill-signing ceremony at Family Guidance Centers in Bronzeville, a behavioral health nonprofit that focuses on treating mental health and substance use disorders. “This is another big step toward an Illinois where mental and physical health care are truly accessible for all our communities.”

The bill temporarily removes re-licensing requirements for psychologists, social workers and professional counselors whose licenses have been inactive for up to five years, eliminating red tape that holds back some clinicians from returning to the workforce, Pritzker said. Another measure expedites the process for out-of-state providers to get licensed in Illinois.

The measure also incentivizes employers to hire workers recovering from mental health or substance use disorders by offering a tax credit. Not only does it promote tax savings for employers, but it also reduces the stigma of addiction and mental illness, said Jud DeLoss, CEO of the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health, which represents behavioral health providers.

If a worker who puts in at least 500 hours a year voluntarily reveals their recovery status, employers can receive a tax credit of $1 per hour worked by that employee, up to $2,000 per worker per year. Employers can receive up to $2 million in tax credits under the measure starting Jan. 1. The credit applies to both part- and full-time workers and any Illinois employer that registers with the state Department of Human Services can apply.

People in recovery “want to work,” but finding a place that will hire them can be a challenge, David Albert, mental health director at IDHS, said at the bill’s signing.

“We know that employment is an essential part of recovery,” Albert said. “Employment brings income, self-esteem, opportunities for socialization and a better quality of life.”

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The new law also allows certified mental health or psychiatric nurses, not just physicians, to conduct psychiatric visits.

State Sen. Laura Fine, a Glenview Democrat, introduced the legislation in January and it was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly without opposition. Fine said at the signing that it’s “frustrating” to hear of people being turned away from receiving mental health services because of a lack of available providers.

“This creates an incredible obstacle for people bravely taking the first steps to seek mental health and substance use disorder treatment,” Fine said. “And as we all know, a mental health emergency cannot wait.”

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer said he lived 12 years of his life not knowing he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that stemmed from witnessing a person slain on Chicago’s West Side when he was just 10 years old. In his pursuit to become a licensed clinician, Deer had to go through counseling himself, he said.

Deer said he’s been called by constituents countless times, not about issues in the county’s 2nd District, but because the callers knew about Deer’s background and “can’t find another Black therapist.”

“We need more Latino clinicians, more Asian American clinicians, more Black clinicians,” Deer said. “We need clinicians as diverse as the state of Illinois. This bill helps us (with) that.”

cspaulding@chicagotribune.com