Tens of thousands of New Jersey residents utilized out-of-state mental health services during the first several months of the coronavirus pandemic's stranglehold on New Jersey, according to published research out of Rutgers University.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, at least 3,700 mental health providers from across the country secured a temporary license to practice on New Jersey patients, the study finds. And close to 30,100 New Jerseyans were on the receiving end of that care.

New Jersey enacted the COVID-19 Temporary Emergency Reciprocity Licensure program in March 2020 to improve access to both COVID and non-COVID care for residents via telecommunication or in-person visits.

The program came to a close at the end of March 2023.

"Mental health providers were one of the highest utilizers of the program," said Ann Nguyen, lead author of the study and an assistant research professor at the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy. "Our study findings showed that programs like this worked really well and helped people get access to crucial mental health care during a time when access to care was jeopardized."

And there was great diversity in the care that was delivered, Nguyen noted. Mental health care practitioners included in the study conversed with patients in at least 13 languages, and more than half of the practitioners served at least one person from an underserved racial or ethnic minority group.

Dozens of states changed their rules during the pandemic to allow health care providers to work across state lines. Without such compacts, most providers only practice in one or two states, Nguyen said.

The research covers a span of less than a year, but researchers say the findings have implications for long-term licensure reciprocity mechanisms.

"Decision makers should be encouraged to consider how to make licensure more flexible and portable so that we can help increase access to care in the future," Nguyen said.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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