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Washington Health System, Lawmakers Discuss Path Forward for Post-COVID-19 Health Care

PA Heroes Act grants would fund innovative programs to bolster access to care, workforce

May 14, 2021

In Southwestern Pennsylvania and across the commonwealth, hospitals and health systems are leaders in the communities they serve. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, these organizations have overcome incredible adversity, caring for every patient who needed help, regardless of their health status; providing COVID-19 testing; and administering millions of vaccine doses. 

Every hospital and health system has had its own experience with COVID-19, and their paths forward are as diverse as the communities they serve. One thing, however, remains the same across the state: Pennsylvania’s hospital community must remain strong. Today, lawmakers and leaders from Washington Health System (WHS) outlined how the Health Care Heroes and Public Health Preparedness (PA Heroes) Act could improve the public health infrastructure, health care workforce, and access to behavioral health care.

The PA Heroes Act, supported by The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP), would set aside $650 million of Pennsylvania’s share of the federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to support grants for the hospital community to address some of these urgent needs. This innovative program would empower the individuals and organizations on the front lines of the pandemic to lead the creation of new and innovative programs that address the specific needs of the communities they serve.

“The PA Heroes Act would empower community-based health providers like WHS to create programs that focus on building our workforce and forging innovative partnerships to address the heath care needs of our patients, our neighbors, our families and our friends,” said Brook Ward, president and CEO of WHS. “We are proud to have served our community as a local leader throughout this pandemic, and look to strengthen our system to continue to serve through any and all circumstances in the future.”

During the press conference, leaders from Washington Health System outlined Southwestern Pennsylvania communities’ key health care needs that could be addressed by this grant model:

  • Judy Devenney, director of operations for the Washington Physicians Group, discussed the WHS medical assistant training program
  • Barb McCullough, vice president of human resources, detailed WHS’ mission to train new phlebotomists
  • Kay Jo Fischer, emergency preparedness and clinical educator, discussed the need to bolster disaster preparedness in the region
  • Richard Ajayi, MD, an inpatient psychiatrist, discussed the ways that COVID-19 has impacted patient mental health needs

The PA Heroes Act enjoys bipartisan, bicameral support from lawmakers across the state. The House legislation—House Bill 1359—is co-prime sponsored by Representatives Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland)  and Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia). State Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington, Greene, Beaver) is the prime sponsor of the Senate companion legislation, SenateBill 642.

“Our community’s hospital workers have overcome so much during the COVID-19 pandemic, working tirelessly to care for everyone who needs it,” state Senator Camera Bartolotta said. “As we look to rebuild our health care system, we need to make sure that our workforce—who are our family, friends, and neighbors—remains resilient, and that we have the programs and resources to train the next generation of health care heroes.”

“Our local hospitals rose to the challenge during the last year to treat patients suffering from COVID-19 and meet the demand to vaccinate people across Pennsylvania,” state Representative Snyder (D-Greene) said. “It’s imperative that we support our healthcare infrastructure and invest in the needs of rural hospitals so they can continue providing a high level of care for their patients.”

“Many people have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic, which has resulted in long waits for behavioral health care,” said state Representative Tim O’Neal (R-Washington). “Our health care providers especially have shouldered a heavy burden. By setting aside funding to assist hospitals with creating and supplementing programs for their staff and increasing mental health services for all, we can work to address needs created by the pandemic.”