Recently, Senator Jim Beall, Assemblymembers Joaquin Arambula and Marie Waldron, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and civil rights trailblazer Dolores Huerta joined behavioral health leaders from across California to call on Governor Gavin Newsom to sign SB 803 (Beall).

Their video news conference came a day after 40 organizations released a letter calling for the governor’s signature on the bill to expand proven Peer Support Services in Medi-Cal, saying the legislation is critical as California faces a behavioral health pandemic driven by COVID-19.   

"We have a huge mental health crisis in this state - made infinitely worse by the COVID-19 pandemic - and an enormously understaffed mental health workforce,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, founder of the Steinberg Institute. "Creating a certification program for peer support specialists can help us address that, and it can do something else just as important - save money."

Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose) added, “SB 803 helps the governor achieve one of his campaign promises during a tough economic downturn and has the added benefit of securing millions in additional federal funding for counties.”

California is already seeing the signs of the next, behavioral health, pandemic.  Last week, The Los Angeles Times reported on the ‘toll the pandemic has taken on mental health in the Golden State.’ A July Centers for Disease Control survey found more than 44 percent of California adults reported levels of anxiety and gloom typically associated with diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder - a stunning figure that rose through the summer months alongside the menacing spread of the coronavirus.

SB 803 would enable California to expand and diversify the behavioral health workforce by certifying and training Peer Support Specialists - professionals who use their personal experience with recovery from mental illness or substance use disorders with specialized training to help others on their journey toward recovery. 

"Peers have gone through crisis, learned resiliency tools to gain their own mental well-being, and are uniquely positioned to assist others in navigating crisis, which because of COVID 19, so many of us are,” said Sally Zinman, executive director, California Association of Mental Health Peer Run Organizations. “Peers are essential helpers at this time of national crisis.”

“Governor Newsom, our communities are responding to the emotional fallout of COVID-19 and racial disparities,” said Keris Jän Myrick, MBA, MS, chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “Now is the time to sign SB 803 to scale up the certified peer professionals in California to save lives. Peer Support Specialists who have been through their own crisis, trauma and recovery will receive standardized training through SB 803 to support our communities through the impending mental health tsunami.”

Importantly, SB 803 comes at very little state cost – it allows counties to invest in life-saving peer support services for Californians in Medi-Cal and access federal funds to help pay for them. 

“With COVID-19 threatening our lives and economy, California would never turn away an effective medicine for the virus - neither should we forgo a treatment proven to change and even save lives as we face the next, behavioral health, pandemic,” said Michelle Doty Cabrera, executive director, County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. “Governor Newsom, please sign SB 803 to fully engage Peer Support Specialists for behavioral health in California.”

Peer Support Services are proven and cost-effective. Research shows that peer support services reduce costly psychiatric hospitalizations and homelessness for individuals living with mental illness and substance use disorders, as well as increase clients’ participation in treatment, and improve clients’ experience with behavioral health services. 48 states already recognize the value of peer support services and have a certification process in place or in development for mental health peer support specialists in Medicaid. 

SB 803 received near unanimous, bi-partisan support in both the state assembly and senate, where it passed on Aug. 31, with votes of 76-0 and 36-1. The bill is sponsored by the California Association of Mental Health Peer Run Organizations, County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California, County of Los Angeles, and the Steinberg Institute.

"There is a wealth of evidence from clinical trials in many states that using peers can reduce hospitalization, reduce the need for expensive day treatment programs and even cut the use of seclusion and restraint,” Steinberg said. "That’s why OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions, a division of UnitedHealth, the country’s largest health insurer, has integrated peer support services into their mental health teams, and why Kaiser Permanente makes use of peer support to assist patients with mood disorders. California needs to get in the game and start certifying peer specialists like 48 other states already do. For a very modest outlay, we will very quickly bring savings - and critically needed services - to the people of California."

To watch a recording of the press conference, visit https://bit.ly/3m03Wjy.