Another growing shortage

Thursday, May 22, 2008

May is National Mental Health Month, and Iowa is in the midst of a growing shortage of mental health professionals. This shouldn't surprise anyone, since our state traditionally ranks low in retaining graduates of our universities and medical schools.

According to an Associated Press report, a task force is currently studying how to recruit and keep psychiatrists in Iowa. Iowa is 47th in the nation in the number of psychiatrists per capita. No neighboring state is as low.

The University of Iowa has the state's only psychiatric training program. The widely respected program attracts top students from around the country only to see most of them leave the state after graduation.

Add to this the fact that public and private insurers in Iowa pay some of the lowest rates in the country, and you have another prime reason for psychiatrists to leave the state.

It's ironic that we have a program at the University of Iowa that brings students from all over the nation to our state to study, then leave. They are here for at least four years and can get an idea of the quality of life we have to offer, but we fail to "close the deal" and keep some here.

The bottom line is, unfortunately, money.

A national survey by the Medical Group Management Association indicates that Midwestern psychiatrists on average make $180,000 annually, compared with $186,000 nationally. Iowa leaders say the income here is less, though they don't have solid data to show how much.

The shortage of psychiatrists is much worse in rural areas than in the cities. A University of Iowa registry shows that 156 of Iowa's 230 active psychiatrists practice in or around the state's six biggest cities. The Iowa City and Des Moines areas account for 107 of those. Iowa has about 65 openings for psychiatrists.

Somehow, somewhere, someone will have to stand up to the insurance industry for the state of Iowa. The reimbursement rate for many medical services, including mental health services, is obscenely low.

We will only be able to retain physicians and psychiatrists when we can compete on at least a regional level with our neighbors.

Who will stand up for our state and its residents?