With more than half its staff psychiatric positions now vacant, Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness sought — and got — permission from the county supervisors to pay $90,000 signing bonuses to attract new psychiatrists to sign on with the county. Translated into strictly full-time positions, that equates to vacancies in nine out of 13 budgeted positions. The supervisors also voted to increase the pay for staff psychiatrists by 8 percent. This brings the base salary from $285,000 to $295,000. Since 2015, the department has been authorized to pay bonuses of $75,000, but that has not proved persuasive.
The challenge of hiring and retaining high-level medical talent is not unique to Behavioral Wellness. At the county’s Public Health Department, there are five staff physician vacancies; one had been vacant for more than a year.
The funding was approved administratively — meaning there was no board discussion or public comment. Bottom line? The supervisors approved spending up to $1.1 million in signing bonuses over the next year for the two departments. Of that, new physicians will be eligible for the $90,000 bonus, and health care practitioners $50,000.
According to the staff report, both departments have experienced chronic difficulties hiring new physicians, psychiatrists, and health care practitioners, while at the same time, experienced staff have been leaving for other practices. Staff psychiatrists and physicians can reportedly generate up to $200,000 a year above and beyond the cost of salaries and benefits. A recent survey conducted by McKinsey and Company determined that 40 percent of employees are “somewhat likely” to leave their positions within three to six months.
The incentive package is staggered to keep them on the job longer. The bonus payments are not paid in one lump sum but instead spread out in three installments over a two-year period.