Washington Health System President and CEO Brook Ward said funding from the Health Care Heroes and Public Health Preparedness (PA Heroes) Act is “vitally important for the health care community and hospitals across the state” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ward was joined by local lawmakers and WHS clinicians Friday at a press conference at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, where WHS outlined possible programs that could be supported with the $650 million in federal funding that state lawmakers are earmarking for the Heroes Act.

The funds will support grants for the commonwealth’s rural, urban and suburban hospitals and health systems to create and implement programs that address the specific needs of the communities they serve.

During the event, WHS administrators discussed using funding to recruit and train health care workers, including medical assistants and phlebotomists; bolster disaster preparedness; and address mental health issues.

“Pennsylvania’s health care workforce has shown true heroism during the COVID-19 response, and we need to make sure it remains supported and robust now and into the future,” said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-46th District, who is the prime sponsor of the Senate legislation. “As we look ahead to rebuild our health care system, we need to make sure that our workforce, who are family, friends and neighbors, remains resilient, and that we have the programs and resources to train the next generation of health care workers.”

The bill has bicameral, bipartisan support. It also is supported by the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

Judy Devenney, director of operations for the Washington Physicians Group, said funds could be used to continue WHS’s medical assistant training program, a position hospitals have struggled to fill.

In 2020 WHS started a successful five-month program that resulted in four students being hired, and the health system is now starting its third class.

WHS also partnered with Penn Commercial to start a successful phlebotomist program.

Said Barb McCullough, vice president of human resources, “We have had to find innovative ways to attract applicants to the health system. If PA Heroes money becomes available, it will help us financially sustain programs we have in place, perhaps expand, and look to other positions in the health system where we are currently facing recruiting challenges.”

State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, said the Heroes Act “is an appropriate name” for the legislation, and noted the financial losses hospitals, including WHS, incurred, in large part because of the suspended elective surgeries during a significant part of the pandemic.

“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,” said Snyder. “It’s imperative that we support our health care infrastructure and invest in the needs of rural hospitals so they can continue providing a high level of care for their patients.”

WHS also incurred expenses for PPE, medical supplies and equipment, training, the creation of COVID testing sites and vaccination clinics, and more.

“Financial support would be extremely helpful to local health care organizations like Washington Health System that are working to recover from the toll that this pandemic has taken on our workforce and organization, while also preparing us for what lies ahead in the future,” said Kay Jo Fischer, emergency preparedness and clinical educator.

Dr. Richard Ajayi, an inpatient psychiatrist, said the pandemic worsened mental health issues, and said grant money could be used to create programs to address an increase in children and the homeless who need mental health assistance; to implement telehealth; to start an intensive outpatient program and a transition program for those battling mental health and addiction.

State Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, said the mental health of health care providers, parents balancing work and helping their children with schoolwork, and grandparents and the elderly have especially been impacted during the pandemic.

“While mental health has never received the attention it deserves, after this pandemic we need to redouble our efforts to put this care on the same level as physical care,” said O’Neal. “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.”

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