Diakon staff members receive signing pen for PA House Bill 2419

Harrisburg, PA (Monday December 5, 2022)

PA House Bill 2419 Signing Pen Certificate

When a Pennsylvania bill was passed bypassing long-term regulations that had set a limit on the required weekly psychiatric hours needed to run a clinic, Diakon team members enlisted the help of lobbyist Joseph Uliana. Along with the increase in required hours was the mandate that 50% of that time be face-to-face services leaving the remaining 50% with a psychiatric nurse practitioner or telehealth.

Diakon Family Life Services executive director, Laurel Spencer, explains the challenges this bill caused, “The US is experiencing a shortage of psychiatrists that has only grown over the past ten years. This change in the legislation put an additional strain on our program, not only because it jeopardized our license but because our ability to grow our program relies on hiring therapists. However, we cannot hire more therapists without adding more psychiatric time.”

As a result, in the summer of 2021, Diakon team members met with the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) to inquire about obtaining a waiver from the in-person psychiatric meeting requirement. They informed Diakon that they could not issue a waiver because the in-person meeting standard was a legal requirement in Act 25. OMHSAS said the law needed to be changed to provide relief.

The requirements of Act 25 were suspended by the COVID-19 declaration of disaster emergency waiver, but that declaration was scheduled to end by July 1, 2022, and the requirements of Act 25 would return.

“Our efforts then focused on getting new legislation that would allow agencies to utilize telehealth 100% to meet the expectation,” Spencer said. “Telehealth for psychiatry has blossomed over the last ten years, but when COVID-19 hit, it exploded.”

With the instrumental assistance of Uliana, in the fall of 2021, Spencer and other Diakon team members met with Rep. Tina Pickett, Chair of the House Insurance Committee and the original sponsor of Act 25 and a legislator from the Upper Susquehanna region. She introduced a bill to correct this problem. 

On March 16, 2022, Rep. Pickett introduced HB 2419 and had it referred to the House Insurance Committee, the committee she chaired. It passed the House and Senate and was signed into law on July 11, 2022.

Spencer worked in tandem with Uliana throughout the process. He reached out to key political contacts and negotiated options. In addition, Spencer spoke from the perspective of small rural providers severely impacted by the legislation.

Diakon Executive Vice President/Chief Operating & Administrative Officer Shari VanderGast shares, “We were very motivated to meet with Rep. Pickett and advocate for this bill, as it ensures continued flexibility in our ability to meet the needs of those we serve. Being able to provide psychiatric services to our virtual clients during the COVID-19 pandemic was critically important to our clients’ well-being. With the passage of House Bill 2419, we are grateful that we can continue to provide these services to a large number of clients throughout central Pennsylvania.”

Recently, Spencer and VanderGast were acknowledged with a certificate and signing pen from the Governor’s office for their important role in helping to pass PA House Bill 2419.