by Shamaar Thomas
Washington’s health care workforce crisis is representative of the same uphill battle others states are fighting across the country, with burnout among the most significant problems after the pandemic. A recent poll from the WA Safe + Healthy coalition shows that 49% of health care workers in Washington are “likely to leave the health care profession in the next few years” and 79% report burnout. To combat the health care workforce crisis in King County, the nonprofit collaborative HealthierHere launched a $5 million effort in January to support 39 local health care organizations in addressing workforce challenges. The effort’s goal is to help organizations meet their workforce needs, address challenges, and ultimately continue providing culturally responsive care to their communities, said HealthierHere’s interim CEO Thuy Hua-Ly.
These funds will be allocated to address immediate needs around the workforce crisis, a short-term solution to a long-standing issue. “How do we connect health care and behavioral health care providers to the community-based organizations that provide some of those more robust social services and community-based support that are needed to help health equity become a reality?” asked Michael McKee, HealthierHere’s chief health transformation officer.
HealthierHere wants to help by supporting the current workforce’s immediate needs while keeping an eye on the future. The effort seeks to provide early pathways to diversify and increase access to opportunities at entry-level health care careers for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.
“It’s about growing the future,” said McKee.
HealthierHere heard many workforce challenges from its King County partners, like staff shortages, burnout, recruitment, and retention, said Bethlehem Kebret, HealthierHere’s health transformation program manager. HealthierHere’s effort is about letting partners decide how they want to invest funds that address specific challenges they face and put the power in the hands of community leaders. The effort allows local health care organizations to pick two options from focus areas for workforce investments: health care and social service apprenticeships and internships; licensure supervisory support; recruitment and retention strategies; academic partnerships; and staff wellness and burnout prevention.
Seattle’s Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) is one of the 39 organizations receiving funds from the effort. The nonprofit, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has a history of promoting social justice and offering a broad array of services for Asian Americans in King County. Entering a new era after the pandemic, “we definitely need to continue to invest in our staff, because without them, we can’t serve our community,” said ACRS’s former Deputy Director Elisa Del Rosario.
Del Rosario says ACRS’s staff takes pride in serving its community for the past five decades; however, much of the team is nearing retirement, ushering in new efforts to train and hire more staff. With HealthierHere’s funds, ACRS focused on staff wellness and burnout prevention, and recruitment and retention strategies.
“It is one-time-only money, but I think it helped us launch some programs that we would have had to either look for in a grant or use other resources for,” Del Rosario said.
Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), a community health center that has specialized in the care of Native Americans since 1970, grew during the pandemic despite facing pandemic-related workforce challenges. SIHB opened up three clinics amid a time that led many health centers to close their doors, said SIHB CEO and President Esther Lucero.
“I didn’t know what we were capable of until COVID hit,” she said. “Our team really rose to the occasion.”
With the help of HealthierHere’s funds, SIHB wants to fill more nursing positions and invest more in behavioral mental health services. The pandemic underscored the importance of mental health services, Lucero says, and she wants to ensure SIHB has staff equipped to address substance abuse disorders and mental health challenges moving forward.
Lucero attributes SIHB’s demographics — 83% BIPOC, 76% women, and just over 50% Native American — as a driving factor in how the health center survived the pandemic. To have staff that is representative of the community it serves is part of the reason SIHB came out of the pandemic thriving, Lucero says.
“When you experience tragedy, sometimes it harms you,” she said. “It can be a long-lasting trauma or it can make you come out stronger, more resilient. We already know what tragedy looks like. We know how to deal with attacks on our well-being, our way of life, and, quite frankly, our existence. So we know how to overcome that, and I am glad we did just that.”
Shamaar Thomas is a freelance journalist, aspiring to be a full-time reporter/writer in the future. Graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in diversity, Shamaar is excited to continue uplifting community voices with his articles. Washington grown, Shamaar hopes his journalism contributes to positive social change in the Pacific Northwest.
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