Initiatives aim to supplement, diversify Washington’s health care workforce


Shane Ersland


While Washington’s health care workforce is in great need of supplementation, providers face many challenges in growing their staff.


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Kelsey Potter, Sheryl Schwartz, and Suzanne Allen, MD, discussed workforce issues during the 2022 Inland Northwest State of Reform Health Policy Conference. Schwartz, Project Director for the University of Washington Medicine Behavioral Health Institute’s Behavioral Health Apprenticeship Program, said the state faces significant supply-and-demand issues.

“Demand for behavioral health services exceeds the supply,” Schwartz said. “High turnover is a big part. When we talk about the behavioral health workforce, and all health care workforces, there’s questions like, ‘Who’s coming in, how many people are coming in, and how well prepared are those people who are coming in?’ Then there are people who are leaving, unfortunately, because of high stress and low pay.”

While 22% of the state’s population has some type of mental health illness or issue, many are unable to access the health care services they need, Schwartz said.

“Twenty-five percent of those [people] report not being able to get the care they need,” Schwartz said. “That means that five or six percent of the people in Washington State have a completely unmet mental health care need. And, as we know, the pandemic has exacerbated this issue and it’s exacerbated on both the supply and the demand side. On the demand side, people are more stressed and needing behavioral health services. We hear this a lot, particularly in relation to youth.”

Allen, Washington Health Workforce Council Chair, said the council’s Sentinel Network can help supplement the state’s workforce. The network links those working in the health care sector with policymakers, workforce planners, and educators to identify and respond to changing demands for health care workers, with a focus on identifying emerging skills and roles required by employers.

“We had over 379 different employers who provided data into the system,” Allen said. “We’ll have another data collection this fall. With that data collection, we can then share information about where we’re having the biggest workforce shortages and come up with a plan for how we can try to address some of those. The more input we have, the better able we are to address some of our challenges.”

Potter, Vice President of Medicaid at Coordinated Care, said the organization is focusing on whole-person care and looking at investments that can be made in addressing social determinants of health and health equity issues.

“We launched our Community Giving campaign in 2021,” Potter said. “And last year, we invested over $2 million in these categories, specifically equity, social determinants of health as a branch of health equity, capacity building, and workforce shortages.”

Potter said Coordinated Care recently started a pilot program with several Washington colleges to try to supplement the workforce, particularly with diverse workers.

“We partnered with one in every Medicaid region,” Potter said. “And the priority of that program is looking for first-generation college students, students of color, students who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have opportunities to attend a four-year [college]. Folks who are looking to enter the workforce and because of their life priorities are having to go a different route. This program helps purchase laptops for individuals who want to stay in school. Our hope is to learn from the colleges to help get students over the finish line and out into the workforce.”