It appears that the federal government is taking a proactive stance to recognize the nation’s ongoing mental health crisis that has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Recently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services, released recommendations advising doctors to screen all adult patients under 65 for anxiety.

But even if more people are screened for anxiety, there may not be enough psychiatrists and therapists to meet the increased need.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee introduced a draft of legislation that would aim to address the mental health care shortage. The bill has been deemed by mental health experts a significant step towards addressing the problem at the federal level.

The proposed bipartisan package would allow Medicare to cover marriage and family therapists, as well as mental health counselors, for the first time. It would also add 400 residency positions through Medicare to help train more psychiatrists.

Other provisions include incentives for psychiatrists and mental health care workers in areas deemed mental health care deserts — such as rural locations. The draft legislation would also expand Medicare’s Health Professional Shortage Area bonus program to psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and other mental health counselors in those areas.

The U.S. wasn’t the only place experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression rates during COVID-19. Global anxiety and depression rates rose by 25% during the pandemic’s first year, according to the World Health Organization.

That increased demand put more pressure on a mental health care workforce that was stretched thin even before the pandemic, according to Jennifer Snow, national director of government relations and policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“In 55% of U.S. counties, there’s not a single practicing psychiatrist,” Snow said. “Additionally, 134 million people live in what’s referred to as a ‘mental health professional shortage area.’”

The long-term ripple effects of scarcity among mental health care workers can be felt on a societal level as well, Snow said.

“When people go without mental health care, it’s just like going without any physical health care,” Snow said. “In many instances, the condition gets worse. It impacts many facets of life — people’s productivity, their home life, their family life… even their children and future generations. Without people being as healthy as possible, there are a whole slew of negative repercussions.”

The issue isn’t only limited to the patients suffering from mental illness or nonstop stress, as healthcare professionals also carry that burden.

Reyna Taylor, senior vice president of public policy at the National Council for Wellbeing, noted that burnout and stress among providers, especially given the increased demand, has led to difficulties in recruiting and retention.

The National Council for Wellbeing surveyed mental health and substance abuse organizations from across the U.S. and found that 97% of them said it was difficult to recruit employees while nearly 75% said it was difficult to retain them.

“If that’s not the definition of a crisis in terms of our mental health and substance abuse workforce, then I don’t know what is,” Taylor said.

This proposed legislative relief package is not the first effort to remedy an existing healthcare crisis. 

There have been some efforts on the federal level to boost mental health care recently — such as the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which went into effect this summer. That bill included an investment in behavioral health and community-based mental health, as well as school mental health services.

But the latest draft legislation, led by Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Ranking Member Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would move the needle further if passed into law.

Taylor pointed to the provision allowing Medicare to cover more mental health care therapists as the bill’s most significant measure. Currently, those providers can’t bill Medicare for their services, which leads to them taking a loss on those services or having to try to bill the Medicaid department in their respective states.

Additionally, the legislation “would immediately increase the workforce that could bill Medicare and therefore be able to provide services for more people in the community,” Taylor said. “Whoever is trying to come into the field knows that they have a secure form of reimbursement through the Medicare program.”

The legislation will go through several more drafts before it would be voted on, but Taylor noted that this was a significant step forward in acknowledging the problem at hand.

“What we are seeing now is an opportunity for both Congress and the Biden administration to show that they are all in on making a change across our nation,” Taylor said.