Washington Democrats and Republicans lay out health legislative priorities

Six state lawmakers gathered this week to discuss the upcoming session and the health care and fiscal policies they expect to address. The conversations took place in two separate panels — one featuring Democrats and one featuring Republicans — during the Washington State of Reform Virtual Health Policy Conference.

The Democrat panel included Sen. Annette Cleveland, Rep. Lauren Davis and Rep. Steve Tharinger. The Republican panel included Sen. Keith Wagoner, Sen. Ron Muzzall and Rep. Joe Schmick. 

Below is an overview of the wide-ranging discussions that took place in each panel.


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Policy Leadership: Democrats

  • Davis, a member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, said her top priorities are the COVID response, economic recovery, race equity and responses to climate change. This was echoed by Cleveland, who is Chair of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee.
  • Tharinger, a member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, mentioned that one of his top priorities is a bill based on a request for legislation by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. This legislation would allow long term care facilities flexibility in staffing, especially in a time when frontline workers are desperately needed in every level of health care.

“I think it’s important for stakeholders to understand that we’re setting very low expectations,” Davis said.  “Both leadership setting low expectations for members in terms of capacity to pass bills and what we can do in the budget and then setting those same expectations for stakeholders.”

  • Davis also said that the legislature is focused on policies and bills that absolutely have to happen this session. This priority was echoed by the two other panelists, who said that because this is the beginning of the biennial session, the capital budget takes priority and is followed by those bills that are especially urgent and time sensitive. 
  • There was also discussion on the newly passed “988” line, which will be the line that is called when there are behavioral crises that don’t necessarily require a police response. Davis said that building out that system in Washington needs to be a top priority, and that they need to make sure that the system works and is helpful to people. Otherwise individuals calling for assistance may continue to use 911.
  • Cleveland said that one of her priorities is ensuring that there is equity and fairness in health care. 

“COVID has really laid bare these disparities,” she said.

  • Tharinger echoed the statements of his colleagues about addressing racial disparities in health care. He said the legislature needs to assess which communities aren’t not being well-served and then take actions to fix the disparities. He also said that the legislature needs to make a targeted effort to engage with these communities.
  • Tharinger also said that the legislature needs to make targeted workforce investments in underserved communities, especially communities of color, to make sure that they are receiving culturally sensitive care. 
  • Cleveland also noted that it is important that the legislature identify ways to increase funding for public health, and to use this crisis to make sure that they maintain services in these challenging times.
  • Rural access to care is also a major priority for Tharinger. He is focused on making sure that people who live in rural communities have some way to supplement their care to reduce disparities.

Policy Leadership: Republicans

  • Wagoner’s focus will be on behavioral health, and the need to address the people who are falling through the cracks. Muzzall echoed his statements and said that continuing to refine Washington’s telehealth program is the best way to address the cracks in behavioral health care.
  • Schmick said that one of his priorities is addressing the holes in the roadmap for treatment of youth in long-term intensive outpatient treatment. He wants to make it easier for these patients to be treated locally, as they are often not able to be treated in their own communities due to lack of resources. This sentiment was echoed by Wagoner, who said that they need local solutions to local problems, and that people tend to respond better to treatments when they are comfortable in their environment.
  • Wagoner is also a firm believer in public-private partnerships for care. He feels the state needs to remain out of people’s care and to leave it to the professionals, except in forensic settings. 
  • One of Muzzall’s top priorities is long-term care reimbursement and making sure that people don’t have to wait for reimbursement.
  • Muzzall was also concerned about the increased need for mental health treatments and substance use disorder treatments because of the spike in overdoses seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Muzzall also wants to work on ways to streamline reporting for medical facilities, because reporting to state and federal agencies has become a long, drawn out process, he said.
  • Schmick expressed concern about the financial stability of hospitals during the pandemic because many of them have lost out on income due to the downturn in elective surgeries. The impacts that delaying elective surgeries has on patients is a concern for Muzzall.
  • Schmick wants to take a serious look at the governor’s emergency powers. He believes rural areas shouldn’t be under the same restrictions as urban areas because of differences in population density. He said COVID restrictions should not be under the state’s purview, but rather under the county health departments’.
  • Schmick said the state’s economy cannot handle more taxes, and that he is against adding more taxes during a recession.