Workforce issues a 2023 legislative priority, as they should be: Ending the mandate, HB 1039, HB 1041 offer some solutions


Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, summed up one of the issues in need of a lot of attention this session: workforce issues.

Billig ​​​​said in an annual legislative preview sponsored by the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington State Association of Broadcasters, "If you look at law enforcement, we have a workforce issue; if you look at health care, we have a workforce issue; if you look at early learning, we have a workforce issue." Crosscut and other sources report that workforce issues are expected to be taken up in both the new budget and in other proposals. 

There are more than money fixes that I hope won’t go ignored. 

End the mandate

One way to help end public workforce shortages is to throw out the misguided, punitive and outdated vaccine mandate on state workers.

Gov. Jay Inslee created part of the state’s staffing problem with his vaccine mandate. The mandate was made permanent for state workers in executive and small cabinet agencies, well after Washingtonians knew that we could spread and contract COVID-19 with or without the vaccine and were fully aware that working-age adults weren’t those at great risk from the virus. 

In addition to mistreating state workers and throwing family budgets into a tailspin, well-known service issues, such as Department of Transportation woes with snow plows and ferry runs, were in the headlines. Poor service for taxpayers was coupled with continual messaging that painted unvaccinated people as the enemy, not COVID itself. The mandate not only hurt former state employees, unvaccinated people will not be considered for state job vacancies.

Legislators need to take the vaccine-mandate wheel away from Inslee and rid our state of the harmful policy.

Licensing reform, scope-of-practice laws

Another common sense way to tackle some of our state’s workforce issues is through changes to or removal of state licensing. As House Speaker Laurie Jinkins told TVW host Mike McClanahan on the first day of the legislative session, frequently licensing requirements no longer protect Washingtonians, they “grow into a place where they’re actually protecting people from … competitors coming into an industry. We don’t want to do that,” she said. We need to be about  “competency, not about protecting people from entry and competitors into practice." She said licensing barriers might be brought down in health care and other industries.

Research from the Institute for Justice finds that Washington state requires government licenses to work in a larger number of job categories than any other state. Read more about removing occupational licensing here

In health care, one reform bill was already heard in a House Health Care and Wellness Committee meeting today. House Bill 1039 concerns "physical therapists performing intramuscular needling." It would allow more qualified people in our state to perform a skill that acupuncturists and physical therapists agree is essential for some patients’ pain management. It’s something that physical therapists with training are allowed to do in 45 other states

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, has bipartisan support, was built on a military model of care and includes hours of training for physical therapists who want the tool — much more training than in many other states. It could help patient access and decrease discharge times. The only opposition to the bill sounded like turf-war talk. (See testimony for and against HB 1039 here.)

There is no reason for the state-limiting practice, and competition can help medical services when it comes to quality and price. Physical therapists can be sufficiently trained to offer this pain-easing therapy, and patient-centric policies should rule the day, not turf.

Another licensing reform will get a public hearing Jan. 13, again in a meeting of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee. Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, is sponsoring House Bill 1041, “authorizing the prescriptive authority of psychologists.” Right now, authority belongs to psychiatrists, but not psychologists. 

Psychologists, however, play a critical role in the delivery of mental health services in Washington state — and we have a lot of mental health needs, especially post-pandemic. This change could help timely patient access to appropriate care. Psychologists often become trusted providers to patients because of their interactive time together. Sometimes they know better than a patient’s less-familiar providers what patients need and what symptoms they exhibit. 

Not all psychologists will want to prescribe, and extra training will be required to have the tool at a psychologist's disposal. But again, this state-licensing limitation is getting in the way needlessly. 

More licensing reforms will be considered this session. Lawmakers should consider these paths to solving some of our workforce issues. 

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