Montana lawmakers will soon decide if physician assistants should gain legal status as mental health professionals. Right now, the only occupations listed being able to assume the role of mental health professional under state law include:
- Advanced Practice Registered Nurses
- Licensed Counselors
- Social Workers
In mid-January, Rep. Kelly McCarthy (D-Billings) proposed House Bill 220, which would allow physician assistants with a clinical specialty in psychiatric mental health to likewise serve as mental health professionals.
The amendment was co-written by local physician assistant Kaitlin Staebler. According to the Billings Gazette, Staebler realized the need to expand physician assistants’ scope of practice to include more extensive mental health services while completing her school rotations.
Staebler claims the amendment would lessen the mental health professional shortage as well as the alarmingly high suicide rate in Montana.
In fact, suicide is a major public health trouble throughout the state. The Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) reported that Montana held “the highest rate of suicide in the United States” in 2014.
One of the many recommendations suggested by the DPHHS to prevent suicide includes state legislature intervention that would require primary care providers, such as physician assistants, to receive training in suicide prevention and risk assessment.
Right now, in emergency situations, current legislation prohibits physician assistants practicing in mental health to order 24-hour psychiatric holds or employ chemical and physical restraints because they are not officially considered mental health professionals.
In the end, McCarthy and Staebler simply want patients to have greater access to mental health services. And giving physician assistants the same legal rights as mental health professionals does just that, and at no cost.
The passing of House Bill 220 will depend on the approval of both the House and Senate.