5 Things Washington: Policy priorities in the 2023 legislative session, Q&A w/ WSHA’s Gena Ahlawat, Behavioral health access


Emily Boerger


In this edition of “5 Things We’re Watching” we feature details on health policy priorities for the 2023 legislative session, a Q&A with WSHA’s Gena Ahlawat on hospital workforce initiatives, and a video interview with Rhonda Hauff, CEO of Yakima Neighborhood Health Services.

Emily Boerger
State of Reform


1. Health priorities for the 2023 session

Over the course of 2 breakout sessions at the 2022 Inland Northwest State of Reform Health Policy Conference, 4 legislators offered their observations on the health care and fiscal policy they will prioritize in the 2023 legislative session. Rep. Paul Harris, who participated on our Republican leadership panel, said the state’s health care workforce shortage and mental health will be 2 key GOP priorities.

On the Democratic leadership panel, Rep. Nicole Macri said long-term care, behavioral health, and opioid/substance use will be primary areas of focus during session. She also said legislation related to abortion access will likely be introduced. “We’ve been doing a lot of analysis around impacts of access to care for patients,” Macri said. “We’re seeing increases in out-of-state patients coming to seek care here in Washington State. We expect to see some policy both in … protections we can put in place for providers and for patients, and patient access. It’s been a priority.”

2. Q&A: Gena Ahlawat, Washington State Hospital Association

Gena Ahlawat is the Washington State Hospital Association’s new Director of Safety and Quality Workforce. In this role, she will guide hospital leaders in addressing workforce capacity and safety initiatives. In this Q&A, Ahlawat discusses her new role, the importance of staffing committees, and goals and initiatives aimed at addressing the state’s workforce challenges.

About 89% of registered nurses in Washington State are working as nurses, says Ahlawat. But at the same time, there are currently around 6,000 nursing job vacancies in Washington hospitals alone. “We would like to see the state invest in a hospital nursing student loan repayment assistance program, provide grants to assist with child care and transportation costs, increase nursing faculty wages, and join the 37 other states that have already joined the Nurse Licensure Compact to allow nurses practicing elsewhere to more easily move to Washington State. All of these actions would be helpful,” she says.


3. What They’re Watching: Rhonda Hauff, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services

Rhonda Hauff is the CEO of Yakima Neighborhood Health Services—an integrated community health center that serves more than 23,000 patients with 90,000 visits annually. In this edition of “What They’re Watching,” Hauff discusses how YNHS is working at the intersection of health care and housing.

Among several initiatives, Hauff says they are pursuing opportunities available through the Apple Health and Homes Act, looking to purchase a motel to increase housing units available for unhoused individuals, and supporting the utilization of Foundational Community Supports. “We’ve had almost 300 patients involved in Foundational Community Supports, both [through] supportive housing and supportive employment,” Hauff said. “We’ve been able to improve the health of many of the patients we are engaging in supportive housing.”


4. Initiatives to expand behavioral health care

Telehealth, care integration, and investments in step-down care were all discussed during a recent State of Reform panel discussion focused on improving behavioral health care in Washington State. In addition to utilizing technology to expand care delivery, Frontier Behavioral Health CEO Jeff Thomas said interoperability will be an important tool for improving care.

“By the end of this year we’ll have interoperability with each of our primary care providers,” Thomas said. “It’s such a fantastic development. Community information exchanges are being explored. I think there will be some headway on that. That has to do with essentially having ways in which there can be portals for referrals and closed-loop referrals to social determinants of health providers.” Thomas also added that expanding community-based inpatient treatment will offer an opportunity for improved care.

5. Beacon discusses Narcan vending machine pilot program

Beacon Health Options shared results from their Narcan vending machine pilot program during our “Innovative approaches for addressing the social determinants of health” panel at the State of Reform conference. Through the program, vending machines carrying the overdose reversal medication were placed in rural, North Central areas of Washington.

Beacon’s Leah Becknell says the goal of the program is to increase low-barrier access to the medication. “We see a lot of variability around whether or not naloxone is available for individuals who might need it. It’s inadequately stocked in many locations, particularly minority neighborhoods. And we know about pharmacy deserts in rural areas,” she said. Beacon and its partners distributed almost 800 Narcan kits in the program’s first 6 months of operation, Becknell said, and they can track 39 lives saved by that distribution. She says they are looking to add additional machines in the Southwest region and in Pierce County.