Each day over 7,000 social workers who are licensed in Maine make life better for tens of thousands of Mainers in need. They empower people and give them skills to overcome life’s challenges. They are woven into the fabric of our society, although they are often unsung heroes. As our nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and racial unrest social workers are needed more than ever.

Moriah Geer advises hundreds of immigrants, low-income and underserved Mainers and effectively advocates for them to receive the help they need to keep the lights on, a roof over their heads, food in the fridge and access to much needed healthcare. Alicia Burke supervises a cadre of case managers who ensure their clients with severe and profound mental illness get much needed health care and services, preventing them from living on the streets or developing advancing illnesses or conditions that are beyond repair. Julie Schirmer has counseled patients for years on anxiety, depression and substance use issues, much aggravated and increased by the COVID pandemic.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists social work as one the fastest growing professions in the United States. The number of U.S. social workers is expected to rise to more than 800,000 in 2029, up 13 percent from 2019. The social work profession is also one of the most diverse of the counseling professions, growing from 26 to 43 percent of MSW degrees between 2000 and 2019 (cswe.org).

Yet, social workers need support from our nation. The work of many social workers would not be possible without telehealth during these unprecedented times. We urge every state legislator to support ongoing telehealth reimbursement legislation at rates equal to in-person visits. We also ask that telehealth include audio-only telehealth reimbursement for Mainers who lack the means to participate in video-telehealth visits. Representative Hymanson’s LD 333: Act Regarding Telehealth addresses both of these issues. The COVID pandemic has revealed telehealth’s ability to increase health and behavioral health care access by decreasing the time and transportation for appointments.

We believe that reimbursement and parity for telehealth and specifically audio-only telehealth services is a health equity issue. Approximately 13 percent of the US population lacks access to high speed internet, with higher percentages effecting low income, rural, Black, Hispanic and persons living with disabilities (JAMA, 2020). Thirty percent of persons with incomes less than $30,000 do not have a smart phone. Forty percent lack access to a computer or high speed broadband (Pew, 2020). From March-June, 2020, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries reported receiving their care through audio-only devices (Health Affairs, 2020).

In the state of Maine, pre-COVID telehealth programs at MaineHealth, Maine’s largest hospital network, had between 1,500 and 2,000 video visits per month. By the end of 2020, this number had risen to 40,000 per month (Atwood, Bangor Telehealth, 12/28/2020). Telehealth reimbursement must continue after the pandemic crisis, improving access to health and behavioral health services for over-stressed families with young children, persons living with crippling anxiety and depression, and Maine’s growing elderly population.

Social workers also deserve higher salaries and more programs that would make it easier for people to enter and work in the field, such as debt forgiveness programs. We ask our legislators to support bills that would tackle high caseloads, low salaries, and other challenges the social work profession is facing. These include Representative Gramlich’s LD 496: Act to Clear Waiting Lists for and Ensure Timely Access to Mental Health Services for Maine Children, LD 592: Act to Ensure Access to Outpatient Mental Health Services by Increasing Reimbursement for Outpatient Therapists and Representative Madigan’s LD: 582: Act to Support the Fidelity and Sustainability of Assertive Community Treatment. 

During Social Work Month in March we urge you to learn more about the essential work of social workers and what you can do to help members of this profession do their positive, life-changing work.

— Special to the Press Herald

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