Home News Local news Senators Consider Bill Allowing Psychologists to Prescribe Drugs

Senators Consider Bill Allowing Psychologists to Prescribe Drugs

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Nov. 14, 2006 — A large group of local mental health care professionals locked horns Tuesday over a bill that gives psychologists the ability to prescribe drugs to mentally ill patients.
While some psychiatrists called the bill "bad medicine" and a "prescription for disaster," psychologists argued that the measure would set up a much-needed "one-stop shop" system for patients.
Because of the varying viewpoints, Sen. Usie R. Richards, the bill's sponsor, supported holding the bill for further review. "I'm in informational mode right now," he said during Tuesday's Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services meeting. However, he reminded testifiers and senators that a lack of psychiatrists in the territory has "created a crisis" and has limited residents' access to "quality mental health care services."
As currently written, the bill grants prescriptive powers to licensed psychologists who have: passed an examination conducted by the V.I. Board of Psychology, completed 300 "didactic" training hours and treated a minimum of 100 patients.
During the meeting, psychiatrists said they were opposed to the "minimal" requirements and stated that prescriptive powers should only be granted to individuals who have the requisite medical training and pharmaceutical know-how.
"Three hundred hours of didactic training and the treatment of 100 patients does not equate to the many years of training obtained by a psychiatrist," said Dr. Kendall Griffith, medical director of Juan Luis Hospital on St. Croix. "Three hundred hours equates to 12 days of training. In comparison, a psychiatrist has had four years of medical school training and four years in a residency program."
Kendall added that while clinical psychologists do play a "crucial role" in caring for the mentally ill, a lack of medical training could "lead to disastrous results — especially in the hands of those who are very eager to prescribe and are not knowledgeable in the recognition of drug-to-drug reactions, the side effects of these drugs and the management of potential complications."
While one psychologist testifying on Tuesday agreed with Kendall's statements, others said that licensed clinical psychologists who have completed the "full complement" of course work necessary to obtain a doctorate in psychology and have obtained an adequate amount of supervised training, should be able to write prescriptions.
"The sense of urgency here comes from the ever-increased need for mental health services, not only in the Virgin Islands, but throughout the world," said Dr. G. Rita Dudley-Grant, a local psychologist. She explained that public, or government-run, mental health care facilities are currently understaffed and "stretched to capacity."
"We recognized that this [bill] is one more step in capacity building, in providing a few more hands at a more cost-effective rate to provide desperately needed services to our undeserved mentally ill and dually diagnosed population," Dudley-Grant added.
A different perspective was offered by Dr. David Weisher, head of neurology at Roy L. Schneider Hospital. Weisher, who said he is opposed to the bill, told senators that the territory is not suffering from a "critical" shortage of psychiatric care.
"Actually, access to quality psychiatric care is much better here than in the states," he said. "Patients that I have referred to psychiatrists often have to wait no longer than one or two weeks. This is much better than in Boston where patients have to wait four to six weeks."
While Weisher added that he was not opposed to establishing a collaborative system where "both sides can work together," he said that giving psychologists the ability to write prescriptions would "lower the standards" for mental health care in the territory.
"People keep saying that we don't have enough psychiatrists in the territory. Where is the proof of that?" added Dr. Olaf Hendricks, another local psychiatrist. "Have we tried to maximize our efforts and sat down to work this out like we used to? The answer is no."
Hendricks told senators that the "general" lack of emphasis placed on providing quality mental health care services is the "real problem."
"We do not want to provide second-class care to patients," he said. "We are too willing to revert to second- and third-line options without giving consideration to the best we can offer right here."
While the bill was held in committee on Tuesday, Richards said he would be re-introducing it during his next term in the Legislature. "I'm looking to get input from everyone," he said. "But let's not forget that we have to find a solution to the current mental health crisis and look into issues like the availability of services and the lack of manpower. It's because of these things that I can assure you that this topic is not going to die, and this bill will not go away."
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Neville James and Richards. Noncommittee member Sen. Liston Davis was also present.
Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Norman Jn Baptiste were absent.
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