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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As demand for behavioral health treatment outpaces supply, Washington lawmakers consider loosening restrictions for practicing psychologists

Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, sponsored Washington House Bill 2247 in response to the shortage of behavioral health care workers in the state. The bill passed unanimously Monday on the House floor and now moves to the Senate for consideration.  (Courtesy)

OLYMPIA – As behavioral health staffing shortages take a severe toll on Washington residents who need care, state officials are searching for ways to encourage psychologists to stick around.

On Monday, the state House of Representatives voted 97-0 in favor of a bill that would create an associate-level license for psychologists in the state. If passed, the bill would also allow associate psychology providers to work while their license applications are pending. People in training to become psychologists would be able to practice and have patients with certain restrictions under the proposal.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, who serves as the vice chair of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

“Crossing our fingers and hoping providers decide to return to the state to practice after getting licensed doesn’t solve our problem.” Bateman said Monday. “Creating an in-state training and licensing program is a proactive way to grow our workforce.”

To qualify for an associate license, the bill says a person would need to be enrolled in a doctoral or postdoctoral program. The director of clinical training or postdoctoral supervisor of their program would also need to deem them competent to practice. In the associate program, a licensee would be permitted to practice psychology under the supervision of an approved supervisor.

The proposed legislation also would allow the state’s Examining Board of Psychology to waive requirements for licensing a psychologist without an examination, if that psychologist has been licensed in another jurisdiction for long enough that the board deems the waived requirements “duplicative” or “unnecessary.”

Bateman’s bill would require associate psychologists to tell all of their clients that they are associates practicing under supervision. The proposed law would remove the current law on the books limiting how many times a person may renew their associate license.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, stood on the House floor Monday and urged his fellow state representatives to vote in favor of Bateman’s bill.

“We need this vital part of the workforce to continue to deliver the counseling that they will be able to give on their way to getting full licensure,” Schmick said.

Last month, a few health care professionals testified about the bill before the House Health Care & Wellness Committee.

Yakima Neighborhood Health provides people with access to medically-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, behavioral health support and other health care needs. The community center also provides recuperative housing for homeless people who are either not sick enough to be hospitalized, or for people who were recently discharged from the hospital for whom it would be unsafe to sleep on the streets.

Jake Eakin, the behavioral health director of Yakima Neighborhood Health, said the agency could greatly increase the number of professionals who treat patients without spending more money if the bill is approved.

People who don’t have reliable transportation along with those who face mobility obstacles have a difficult time making it to multiple health care clinics if they suffer from multiple health care conditions that require regular treatment. For example, if a person’s behavioral health clinic is miles away from where they see their general practitioner, it might be difficult for them to swing two weekly appointments on top of a 40-hour work schedule.

Eakin said Yakima Neighborhood Health is doing its best to provide different types of health care.

“Many patients prefer to have all their providers – medical and behavioral – under one roof,” Eakin said. “I do strongly believe that agency-affiliated counselors in the community health centers are one of the many missing pieces to successfully addressing patient needs.”

Bob Cooper was another health professional who testified at Monday’s hearing. He spoke on behalf of Washington’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, saying the organization was “mostly” supportive of the bill. The association, he said, disagreed with a statute in the bill that would eliminate a continued education requirement for certain behavioral health professionals.

After passing in its House floor vote, Bateman’s bill was sent to the Senate for further consideration.