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Behavioral health scholarship bill advances

A legislative committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that aims to combat a shortage of behavioral health specialists in the state by funding scholarships for individuals entering the field.

House Bill 1044 gives the Department of Health $20 million from the state’s general fund to pay for scholarships promoting behavioral health careers. The bill also requires recipients to stay in South Dakota and work in the field. The time requirement would be one more year than the total years they received the scholarship.

According to Republican Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt of Minnehaha County, the bill’s prime sponsor, the need for this bill and the scholarships comes from a continuous lack of workers in the field.

Rehfeldt led a group that was as part of the Study Committee on Juvenile Justice that met last summer. She said the group saw the juvenile justice system did not have enough workers to efficiently diagnosis mental health problems and connect kids having a crisis with a therapist.

“We found that there was a lot of gaps within mental health and that really we had a lot of work to do,” Rehfeldt said.

Representative Taylor Rehfeldt, House Bill 1044's primary sponsor
South Dakota Legislature
Representative Taylor Rehfeldt, House Bill 1044's primary sponsor

Rehfeldt said that the scholarships from House Bill 1044 would encourage more students to enter the field and ultimately end up working in South Dakota.

Carol Stewart, the director of Mount Marty University’s graduate nursing program, said money often acts as a barrier for individuals to continue education in this field.

“This bill helps by lessening the immediate financial burden to South Dakota nurses returning to graduate school,” Stewart said. “The majority of our graduate nursing students at Mount Marty maintain part-time, if not full-time, employment during their education.”

Mark Fuller, who works in the state’s Bureau of Finance and Management, said that the bill is unnecessary, as there are two federal programs that provide scholarships for students in the field in South Dakota.

“Because of federally funded programs that are available, we have a unique opportunity in South Dakota to see the outcomes and determine the effect of this prior to putting state general funds towards this effort,” Fuller said.

In response, Rehfeldt said she’s looked into those programs and determined they don’t provide enough money, are too difficult for students to attain, or ultimately expire.

Rehfeldt said the bill she’s sponsoring would be more achievable for students. Additionally, she said the funding provided by the bill would sustain itself so that the legislature won’t have to repeatedly fund it. While $5 million of the allocated money will immediately go towards scholarships, the remainder will go towards keeping the program running.

Despite the scholarships this bill would create, Rehfeldt said more work needs to be done to solve the issues her group saw.

“This is not the answer,” Rehfeldt said. “This is a part of the answer, because along with addressing workforce, we still have to address how kids actually receive those services and how we continue to move forward to make sure they are being taken care of.”

House Bill 1044 is one of many bills that have developed from last summer’s study of the juvenile justice system the legislature has been looking this session. It next moves on to the Joint Committee on Appropriations.

Andrew Kronaizl is a senior at Augustana University. He is from Vermillion, SD, and is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls studio.