Washington state has a behavioral health care challenge

Washington state is experiencing a severe behavioral health care crisis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 650,000 Washingtonians were receiving treatment for behavioral health needs, while another 700,000 had mental health concerns but were not yet connected to care. Today, demand continues to grow due to pandemic-related stress.

Sadly, many patients who attempt to access care for depression, anxiety and other behavioral health needs encounter barriers. These include difficulty navigating the complex health care system, a shortage of behavioral health providers in their area, lack of insurance coverage, inability to afford care and lack of culturally-appropriate services.

We asked to be a part of the solution

At Project Access Northwest, we improve community health by connecting the most vulnerable members of our community to vital health care services. As the only specialty care coordination program in King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties, we partner with more than 1,740 volunteer providers to offer care in more than 50 specialties, completely free of charge to our patients. Our care coordinators match patients in need to providers who will care for them, complete required screenings, and schedule appointments. Last year, we had a no-show rate of less than 4% for over 3,200 appointments made for individuals living at or below 300% of the Federal Poverty Level.

We knew we could be part of the solution for Behavioral Health Care access as well. So we proposed connecting patients to a new network of volunteer behavioral health care providers, building on our nearly two decades of similar care coordination experience.

Representative Nicole Macri and Senator Manka Dhingra provided unwavering support and sponsored our proviso request to the legislature to allocate $500,000 of the fiscal budget to launch a one-year pilot behavioral health care coordination program in King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties. Other champions of our request include: Senators Christine Rolfes, June Robinson and David Frockt; House Speaker Laurie Jinkins; and Representatives Tarra Simmons, Lauren Davis and Eileen Cody.

We want to provide special thanks to Bevin McLeod, co-founder & board president, and Nicole Gomez, co-founder and board secretary, of Alliance For A Healthy Washington for their incredible thought-leadership and advocacy throughout this process.

State legislators approved our pilot program funding

Here is how the program was described in the official supplemental budget sent to the Governor:

(112) $500,000 of the general fund—state appropriation for fiscal year 2023 is provided solely for the authority to provide a one-time grant to a nonprofit organization to establish a program to provide pro bono counseling and behavioral health services to uninsured individuals with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The grantee must have experience in leveraging local and philanthropic funding to coordinate pro bono health care services within Washington. The authority must provide the funding pursuant to an appropriate agreement for documented capacity-building to begin providing pro bono counseling and behavioral health services no later than April 1, 2023. The agreement must require the grantee to seek, document, and report to the authority on efforts to leverage local, federal, or philanthropic funding to provide sustained operational support for the program.

Governor Inslee signs budget into law

Now that the budget is approved, this funding will allow us to organize a one-year pilot program, invite a broader base of sustainable funding partners and provide the blueprint for expansion across the state over the next three years. The program will connect vulnerable patients to the behavioral health care they need through in-person appointments, as well as telehealth options for those who request it or lack access to local resources.

With additional funding, after three years, the expanded pilot is projected to generate a pipeline of up to 500 volunteer counselors, donating up to 10,000 hours of pro bono talk therapy services to address behavioral health needs such as depression, anxiety, grief and trauma.

This pro bono behavioral health care coordination approach has a track record of success in other states such as Maryland, where a non-profit organization recruited more than 800 providers to provide 16,000 hours per year of pro bono mental health services to low-income patients and families.

The pilot program in Washington state will go beyond striking down barriers for patients. It also will offer volunteer opportunities for behavioral health care providers who seek to donate care but lack a support system. Providers who participate in the program will receive thoroughly screened clients who show up for appointments on time, as well as ongoing case consultation and support. As the program expands, it will also seek to offer free continuing education workshops to providers. Studies show that providers who volunteer are also better able to: combat depression; counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety; increase self-confidence; and advance their career.

We sincerely thank Representative Nicole Macri and Senator Manka Dhingra for their sponsorship of our proviso request and their commitment to expanding access to behavioral health care to those most in need in our communities. And we thank the entire legislature and Governor Inslee for supporting this program by passing and signing the supplemental budget.