University of Washington: $38M set of gifts from Ballmer Group to address behavioral health crisis aims to bolster workforce, resources across Washington through UW-led programs

The School of Social Work and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and the Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center are part of a transformational $38 million set of gifts from Ballmer Group to support a broad, collaborative response to the state’s behavioral health crisis.Dana Brooks/University of Washington

Washington state legislators, universities, service providers and philanthropy come together to drive major investments into statewide behavioral health system as COVID-19 fuels rise in behavioral health issues
Gifts aim to address inequitable workforce, treatment access issues by addressing workforce shortages and providing scholarship opportunities across the state

The University of Washington on Friday announced that the School of Social Work and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and the Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center are part of a transformational $38 million set of gifts from Ballmer Group to support a broad, collaborative response to the state’s behavioral health crisis.

The gifts aim to address the state of Washington’s serious workforce shortage in the community behavioral health system, in large part by supporting statewide education and training innovations at partner institutions developed through the University of Washington. The new grants come on the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee’s historic behavioral health bill signing Thursday which recognized the severity of the crisis and celebrated new investments.

“As governor it has been a priority to address our state’s outdated behavioral health system. Behavioral health is health care and the impacts of the pandemic made it that more urgent we improve the system,” Gov. Inslee said. “The package of legislation I signed this week – combined with the tremendous support of organizations like the Ballmer Group and their work with our state agencies and the University of Washington – is all part of that process to get greater access to behavioral health for more people.”

“Developing and providing statewide resources, care and expertise in behavioral health is critical to the long-term health of our state and our communities,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said. “Ensuring people get the care they need to recover, especially at times of crisis, is absolutely critical for the health of our population. This bold investment by Ballmer Group to improve behavioral health care in our state puts us on a path to a truly healthy future.”

Washington state currently ranks among the lowest in the nation in serving people with mental health challenges. The needs are vast and far-reaching, with Washingtonians experiencing common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, serious and persistent disorders such as schizophrenia or addiction to alcohol or other substances. In addition, nearly a quarter of adults with a mental illness reported not being able to access care, which is only being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

The state Legislature responded to the urgent need during its recently completed session with unprecedented investments in Washington’s behavioral health system. The Legislature’s commitments included $200.5 million for a new 150-bed behavioral health teaching facility on UW Medical Center’s Northwest campus, in addition to an expanded psychiatry residency program and a statewide 24/7 psychiatric consultation program. Legislators also designated nearly $170 million to support community behavior health providers, mobile crisis response teams throughout the state, intensive case management and Homeless Outreach Stabilization, and one-time relief to ease the financial impact of COVID on providers.

Ballmer Group’s gifts will complement these investments through innovative and transformational approaches to growing and strengthening the state’s behavioral health workforce.

“The behavioral health crisis is all too real, and while it affects everyone in our state, this reality is compounded for communities of color. The same inequities that plague every American institution apply to our behavioral health system, which is designed to cater to wealthy white people. Further complications of stigma, cost, and a fundamental lack of system capacity to meet the growing need are woven throughout our current behavioral health infrastructure,” said Connie Ballmer, co-founder of Ballmer Group. “That’s why we were proud to partner with the University of Washington, state leaders, providers to lay a foundation for shifting our system through addressing workforce capacity, access and equity.”

The UW School of Social Work will coordinate a major component of Ballmer Group’s investment, $24.8 million designed to expand the diversity and numbers of well-prepared, debt-relieved students graduating from the state’s master’s programs in social work and mental health counseling who go on to work in community-based behavioral health programs. These programs serve individuals and families who face poverty and severe, long-term mental health or substance-use challenges.

More than 400 graduate students from approximately 13 colleges and universities across the state will receive more than $21 million in financial assistance over the next five years, supporting a graduate-level clinical education that, for many, would not otherwise be financially feasible.

Participating graduate students will receive grants to offset the high costs of graduate education in return for committing to work for three years in the behavioral health system. Participating graduate schools will partner closely with agencies to design clinical education tailored to meeting the needs of clients, strengthen student internships, and provide career placement and mentoring to support sustained careers in behavioral health services.

“Ballmer Group’s generous gift will assist hundreds of graduates students throughout the state and serve as a model for collaboration between higher education, the community, philanthropy and the public sector,” said Edwina S. Uehara, the Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work at the UW. “This investment will allow key partners to come together to address our state’s behavioral health needs from multiple angles and help to ensure greater health equity for communities of color and low-income families.”

More than $3 million will be used over five years to create an innovative training program for Behavioral Health Support Specialists (BHHS) for undergraduate students in colleges around the state of Washington in partnership with the UW Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“We know how to help, and we need to make sure that those living with serious mental health and addiction problems have rapid access to safe and effective care,” said Dr. Jürgen Unützer, chair of the UW Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “And we need to pay special attention to historical inequities that leave communities of color and low-income families the least likely to get care.”

The Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center will receive $5.5 million over three years to establish statewide behavioral health apprenticeship programs for early and mid-career professionals in collaboration with community partners, including the King County Executive’s Office and The SEIU Healthcare 1199NW Multi-Employer Training Fund.

“In King County and across the state, the demand for behavioral health care exceeds availability of these vital services,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Building and launching statewide behavioral health apprenticeship pathways is an innovative, collaborative approach to building a qualified, diverse workforce equal to the growing need. Apprenticeships will increase accessibility to services, enhance retention, stabilize the behavioral health workforce, and bring necessary diversity to the delivery of behavioral health services.”

Nearly $3 million over two years is dedicated for the Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center to support government leaders and community-partners on revisioning and redesigning Washington’s behavioral health crisis response system.

Beyond the financial commitments to the UW and students at colleges and universities around Washington, Ballmer Group is investing in other ways to build behavioral health capacity across the state.

The Washington Council for Behavioral Health will receive $1.1 million over four years from Ballmer Group to fund a pilot project to test new ways of providing clinical supervision in behavioral health agencies that serve predominantly low-income people and those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Another $400,000 over two years will go to the Washington State Health Care Authority to drive the uptake of behavioral health peers in the Medicaid and commercial systems.
And $500,000 over three years will be directed to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship to match the state’s investment in a Graduate Scholarship in Advanced Health Care, initially targeting nurse practitioners.

Here is what legislators, community partners and leaders in the behavioral health community are saying about this investment in the state’s behavioral health infrastructure:
“Having a behavioral health crisis is not illegal,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), chair of the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee. “It is a cry for help. We need a statewide behavioral health crisis response system that gets people the help they need when they need it. We have a unique opportunity to do just that right now with the use of the recently approved 988 crisis hotline number, investments in workforce development, and advances in trauma-informed care. This transformation would not be possible without the critical support provided by these grants from the Ballmer Group.”

“The Ballmer Group’s investment in Washington’s behavioral health workforce is both strategic and historic. In addiction treatment, for instance, the number one predictor of client success is the quality of the therapeutic alliance with their provider. It is imperative, then, that providers are well trained, well compensated to avoid turnover and that they reflect the diversity of the community they are serving,” said Rep. Lauren Davis (D-Shoreline). “I am particularly enthusiastic about the investment in the peer workforce. Peers are individuals in recovery from mental health and substance use challenges who are incredibly gifted at building bridges of trust and connection. Up to now, peers have been wildly underutilized. This targeted investment will ensure that peers are maximized in settings that serve youth, adults and families.”

“Behavioral Health workforce development is the top need identified by WA’s Children and Youth Behavioral Health Workgroup. The data clearly shows the behavioral health needs of our youth are escalating and having providers available to meet the demand is at the core of getting our children what they need,” said Rep. Lisa Callan (D-Issaquah) who co-Chair’s the workgroup. “The Ballmer Group’s investment in workforce development is pivotal to building the system we need. Their bold action along with Legislature’s historic investments, and our universities’ readiness to teach and grow the workforce, we are taking big steps forward to a more equitable, healthy Washington.”

“The Ballmer Group’s initiative will clearly help improve our state’s behavioral health workforce and services,” said Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle). “Their private contributions will complement our public dollars to make a real impact in the lives of Washington residents. Tens of thousands of people across the state are suffering from behavioral health and substance use disorders, and they need our compassionate care. This past session, legislators made historic investments to improve Washington state’s behavioral health workforce and services. There is much work still to be done. Having a partnership with the Ballmer Group and a variety of community efforts will help address the priority behavioral health challenges of the people of Washington state.”

“The Washington Council for Behavioral Health is the statewide professional association of community behavioral health agencies, serving some of the most vulnerable citizens of our state, people living with serious mental health and substance use disorders,” said Ann Christian, CEO, Washington Council for Behavioral Health. “Our providers are facing unprecedented workforce shortages, limiting their ability to provide timely access to care and respond to community needs. We applaud the multi-prong investments being made by the Ballmer Group and are excited to begin implementing a new teaching clinic model, supporting and strengthening the essential training role played by community behavioral health agencies in preparing future behavioral health professionals to enter the field. We are thrilled to be partnering with the state’s higher-ed programs to ensure that our clinicians receive the education and skill development they need to work with our client population.”

“Behavioral health peer support is a proven way to use lived experience to assist others in their recovery journey,” said Health Care Authority Director Sue Birch. “This investment will help us bolster availability of peer support around the state, further strengthening our behavioral health and recovery system.”

“Diversifying Washington’s health care workforce is critical to addressing health care disparities, and our public-private partnership is proud to play a role in this effort,” said Kimber Connors, executive director of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. “With the Ballmer Group’s generous investment, we can launch our inaugural cohort of rising nurse practitioners, whose careers will be uniquely positioned to address Washington’s behavioral health care crisis by supporting clinicians who better reflect the medically underserved and rural communities they will serve.”

“This initiative will go a long way toward supporting the training that will help our diverse array of students—many of whom are first-generation—become top-tier mental health professionals who can bring quality care to those who need it most,” said Dr. Russell Kolts, Interim Director of the Master’s in Counselor Education Program at Eastern Washington University.

“We’ve grappled with workforce shortage issues for years, but our behavioral health safety net has reached a tipping point: programs in Northwest Washington and across the state cannot accept new clients because we don’t have enough staff to treat them,” said Tom Sebastian, president and CEO of Compass Health, and member-CEO of Fourfront Contributor, a leadership and advocacy coalition of Washington state community behavioral health providers. “We applaud the Ballmer Group, UW and state leaders in their dedication to address this crisis and to create a foundation for future partnership and sustainable solutions that will attract and retain mental health professionals who serve our most vulnerable populations.” Compass Health serves Snohomish, Skagit, Island, San Juan and Whatcom counties.

“We act as a lifeline for the mental and physical health of our most vulnerable populations, and, as large employers, we also function as economic engines to ensure vibrant communities,” said Jodi , CEO of Comprehensive Healthcare, and member-CEO of Fourfront Contributor, a leadership and advocacy coalition of Washington state community behavioral health providers. “An investment in community behavioral health is an investment in the health of our communities, and we look forward to identifying and testing sustainable funding models for the future by building on this foundation created by the Ballmer Group’s generous gift.” Comprehensive Healthcare serves Benton, Franklin, Kittitas, Klickitat, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties.

“A successful community behavioral health system supports the mental and physical health of community members and alleviates burdens on other safety net services – but because of the ongoing workforce shortage crisis, we are not able to keep pace with needs,” said Jeff Thomas, CEO of Frontier Behavioral Health in Spokane, and member-CEO of Fourfront Contributor, a leadership and advocacy coalition of Washington state community behavioral health providers. “This level of commitment from the Ballmer Group, educational leaders and state lawmakers will be important as we continue to work toward sustainable funding and competitive compensation for community behavioral health professionals, so we can ensure the well-being of our communities for years to come.”

“When community behavioral health agencies cannot hire or retain enough professionals to meet demand for services, individuals and families go without access to care – situations that are entirely preventable,” said Patrick Evans, President & CEO of Sound, and member-CEO of Fourfront Contributor, a leadership and advocacy coalition of Washington state community behavioral health providers. “We’re thankful that the Ballmer Group, University of Washington and state leaders recognize the urgency of our behavioral health workforce shortage, and we look forward to continuing to partner on sustainable funding solutions that ensure competitive pay for a stable workforce.” Sound serves clients throughout King County.