PAs’ Role in Providing Critical Mental and Behavioral Health Care Highlighted

In October, PAEA CEO Timi Agar Barwick, MPM, the PAEA Government Relations Team, and AAPA’s Vice President of Federal Advocacy Tate Heuer met with newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

While, in the past, PAEA’s agency advocacy has been primarily focused on the Health Resources and Services Administration due to its administration of Title VII grants, the passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016 has increased policymakers’ awareness of PAs’ ability to provide mental and behavioral health services.

The joint PAEA-AAPA meeting with McCance-Katz had several objectives:

  • Provide the assistant secretary with background information on PA education and the PA profession, including the number of PAs practicing in mental and behavioral health
  • Illustrate the need for improved access to behavioral health clinical training sites
  • Highlight potential opportunities for collaboration in improving substance use disorder PA curricula and enhanced content surrounding Medication Assisted Treatment for opioid use disorder
  • Ensure the provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act that impact PA education and practice are fully implemented

Testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on October 5, McCance-Katz recognized the need to focus on the ability of PAs to help end the national opioid epidemic, stating, “We need to educate practitioners starting at the undergraduate level, medical school, nurse practitioner school, [and] physician assistant school. Everybody…should come out being eligible, having gotten the education, to get that DATA waiver [to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid addiction treatment], and they need more than classroom experience; they need practical experience.”

The assistant secretary’s testimony was a key focus of the joint meeting, and PAEA emphasized the need for continuous improvement in terms of curricula and mental and behavioral health clinical sites in PA education, as the opioid epidemic continues unabated. Addressing barriers experienced by practicing PAs, Heuer emphasized policy restrictions that have limited the number of PAs possessing waivers to prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction.

Commenting on the meeting, Barwick stated, “We’re excited to have had the opportunity to discuss the role of PAs and PA education in addressing the nation’s mental and behavioral health needs with McCance-Katz. We look forward to a continuing dialogue and tangible action items to address shortages of mental and behavioral health clinical training sites, improve substance use disorder curricula, and enhance the ability of our graduates to provide treatment to those in need.”