HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - To address a growing shortage of psychiatrists in the islands, lawmakers are considering a measure that would give psychologists the ability to prescribe medication to the mentally ill.
State Sen. Josh Green, who's an emergency room doctor, said people in rural areas and those on the Neighbor Islands often struggle to get care from a psychiatrists.
Those people instead end up in ERs.
"I very likely will see individuals this weekend that have mental health issues or drug addiction," he said. "It's very difficult for me when I take care of a patient on the Big Island to find a psychiatrist that will admit someone to the hospital or who will be able to take a patient as a long term patient."
People who are uninsured and those on Medicaid often can't get help from psychiatrists.
Because of the shortage, ERs and community health centers are inundated with patients suffering from mental illness.
The proposed measure, House Bill 1072, would require that psychologists get the equivalent of a master's degree in psychopharmacology in order to prescribe medical. They would also have to pass a licensing test.
This isn't the first time Hawaii has considered this legislation, but the shortage of psychiatrists is bringing new attention to the issue. Other states have passed similar measures, including New Mexico and Louisiana.
The Department of Defense also allows psychologists to prescribe medication.
Trisha Kajimura, executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii, said the DOD has allowed psychologists to prescribe for "a couple of decades and they haven't had any problems."
Supporters say the measure won't just address the psychiatrist shortage. It will also prevent patients from being bounced around from one health care provider to another.
"There are people in rural communities that are not able to access psychiatric treatment at all," Kajimura said. "I think this tool will help people experiencing homelessness who are the ones not living on the street for a long time."
But opponents say the bill doesn't provide enough safeguards for patients.
Elaine Heiby, licensed psychologist, said prescribing psychologists would get about 10 percent of the medical training that psychiatrists do. Psychiatrists attend medical school.
"That's a radical reduction and the concern is consumer safety," she said.
A 2014 survey of 1,000 psychologists found 90 percent believed their medical training was substandard.