Office of the President

May 14, 2021

Through public and private investment, we can transform behavioral health care in Washington

Ana Mari Cauce

For too long, there has not been enough recognition that behavioral health IS health, and here in Washington, the need to greatly expand our behavioral health care capacity is pressing. The numbers are sobering: nearly a quarter of adults with mental problems report not being able to access care, a situation worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, 41% of counties in our state do not have even one licensed psychiatrist. Meanwhile, low Medicaid reimbursement rates and increasingly cash-based models put mental and behavioral health care out of reach for most low-income people, making the crisis especially devastating for communities of color and people in underserved areas.

Yesterday, Governor Jay Inslee signed several pieces of legislation that will expand treatment options and help grow our behavioral health workforce pipeline and the legislature has included significant capital and operating funding in the 2021-23 biennial budget to address these pressing needs, including over $200M for the new Behavioral Health Teaching Facility, which will be operated by UW Medicine at UWMC-Northwest. We are grateful to our state’s leaders and policymakers for investing in a healthier future for our state.

Complementing this significant public investment is a $38 million set of gifts by Ballmer Group that invest in the University of Washington, the Washington Council for Behavioral Health and the Washington Health Care Authority. These funds will enable the UW’s School of Social Work and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to address the behavioral health workforce shortage by expanding the numbers and diversity of well-trained professionals. The UW will also work with 13 other Washington universities and colleges whose behavioral and health training programs will benefit from grants and scholarships to help expand the workforce. As Connie Ballmer, co-founder of Ballmer Group, noted, “It will take time for our workforce to grow and for our system to adapt – and workforce capacity is far from the only solution needed,” but this targeted and visionary gift lays essential groundwork for cultivating a healthier population.

The UW is honored to be entrusted with helping to build our workforce of urgently needed professionals, practitioners and care providers. We are eager to leverage our strengths and expertise in training a wide array of behavioral health professionals by expanding our capacity with new scholarships, and excited to see the same investments in students at all the partner colleges and universities. This support will also increase access to advanced and master’s degrees, widening the pipeline of talent, especially in rural and underserved areas. And it will bolster long-standing efforts by the UW and UW Medicine to expand workforce development and safety net professional training in social work for rural communities and in crisis response.

As a public institution, the University of Washington is dedicated to the work of creating healthy, resilient communities – it is the foundation of our Population Health Initiative. So it’s cause for celebration that through both public and private support, these major new investments are being made in our state’s behavioral health care infrastructure and future workforce. This funding model also represents an innovative approach to fostering partnerships between the higher education, non-profit, philanthropic and public sectors. The investment by Ballmer Group focuses on the long-term impact of growing our state’s workforce capacity and it has the potential to create impact for generations.

Despite the significance of these public and private investments, the truth is there is still more to be done, as we and our partners are well aware. But this formidable first step will serve as a demonstration of what can be accomplished through collaboration – between public, private, academic and community partners – and as we undertake the work ahead, there is hope on the horizon for an equitable behavioral health care system that serves all of Washington.