Olszewski receives top honors for mental-health advocacy

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Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, was recognized with a Montana Hero Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for his efforts to bring a psychiatric residency program to the state during a recent awards banquet in Great Falls.

The program will allow medical students specializing in psychiatry to complete at least a portion of their residency in Montana, increasing the chances they would stay in state to begin their careers. Olszewski said Montana consistently ranks among the top three states with the highest rates of suicide in the nation, and also faces difficulties recruiting qualified mental-health practitioners.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified 80 areas in the state of Montana that are facing shortages of mental-health professionals. According to agency data, just 25 percent of the need for mental-health services currently is being met and at least 18 providers would need to be added to bring the state up to par.

“We have a lot of people that need help, but we don’t have a lot of providers who can give good mental-health services,” he said. “We have a critical shortage of psychiatrists.”

Olszewski said the state currently spends $3 million annually to bring in psychiatrists from other states or to cover the costs of telepsychiatry.

“That’s a significant chunk of money that’s leaving the state,” he said.

Between 70 and 80 percent of doctors practice within 200 miles of where they complete their final training, Olszewski said. To help increase that number, the senator pushed to allocate funding for the psychiatric residency program. The Montana Board of Regents is partnering with the University of Washington, which has operated a hybrid residency program for more than a decade, where participants spend their first two years in Seattle and the following two in Eastern Washington. Psychiatric residents in Montana will follow suit — spending the first half of their residency in Seattle and the latter two years in Montana.

Olszewski said the program likely will be based in Billings, but nothing has been set in stone yet. He’s hoping the students will have a chance to practice throughout Big Sky country and work in rural communities, as well as with Native Americans and veterans.

“My job was just to get the right people in the room and give them the education of why this is a very important process … and why we needed to do it this session,” he said.

Olszewski explained that the state allocated $500,000 in seed money necessary to get the program off the ground. The hope is to begin recruiting participants next year who will begin their residencies in 2019. The half-million dollars will be matched by federal funds at a five-to-one ratio, he added. The monies are derived from an underutilized Washington,Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho (WWAMI) Medical Education Program, which offered incentives for physicians to practice in Eastern Montana.

“I just appreciate that what we did was seen as having merit to the mental-health community and specifically from those advocates and the patients who make up NAMI saw this as an important step in improving the mental-health care system here in Montana,” Olszewski said.

This isn’t the first time Olszewski’s efforts to augment mental-health services have been recognized: this summer he also received the 2017 Impact Award during the Montana Conference on Suicide Prevention.

Olszewski represents Senate District 6, which includes communities on the western side of Flathead Lake such as Lakeside, Dayton and Polson. He was elected to serve in the state Senate in 2016 and previously served in the Montana House of Representatives from 2015 to 2017. He is also a candidate for the 2018 U.S. Senate race, vying for the seat currently held by Democrat Jon Tester.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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