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Freshman Representative Jessica Bateman on the intersection between health and housing

Representative Jessica Bateman is a newcomer this year in the House, but she is no stranger to politics in Olympia. From 2012 to 2015, she worked as a legislative assistant to former Representative Chris Reykdal. Then in 2015, she was elected to the Olympia City Council and later served as Mayor Pro Tempore of Olympia. 

Bateman serves on the Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee along with the Capital Budget committee. She also serves as vice chair of the Health Care and Wellness committee. In this Q&A, she talks about how her life experiences have shaped her drive to serve the public and the connection between housing and health.

Sydney Kurle: What made you run for office?

Representative Jessica Bateman: “Well I am a former legislative assistant. I worked for former Representative Chris Reykdal for about three and a half years. He’s now the Superintendent of Public Instruction and just a fantastic leader and human being. He was a former educator so he was very much a mentor to me and he encouraged me. I was appointed to the Olympia Planning Commission, and then I ran for the Olympia City Council in 2015 and served there for about five years. [While there] got to work with the United Way, administering their health and human service grant dollars. So working directly with nonprofits that provide assistance for various programs, all the nonprofits in our community that are doing really important work. And also working on housing and homelessness as a city councilmember, really intersects with health, obviously. So when there was a position that came available, former Representative Doglio, who was just amazing, decided to run for Congress. So when that happened, I felt like I could use my experience at the local level working on issues like health and housing, that those issues are felt statewide, and I wanted to lend my voice to be able to work on those issues at a statewide level. Really focusing on the upstream solutions.”

SK: How have your life experiences shaped your efforts in the Legislature?

JB: “I was raised by a single mom, she also grew up in poverty. She was born and raised in a trailer park in rural Montana, and was able to, when I was a toddler, get a public sector union job as a janitor. Eventually she worked her way up to becoming a laborer, and then an operator. Then eventually she got transferred and took a job as an industrial waste specialist, because she had so many years of experience. But that public sector job enabled her to buy a home. It provided us with essential health care, economic stability. But also, being vulnerable as a single parent household, I can really relate to the experiences of my constituents. I’m the first in my family to go to college and graduate. I have a master’s degree in public administration. I think that I have empathy because of my experience and can really relate to people, and what they’re going through. In my work I really focus on working class families and issues that impact all of us, and especially those that are struggling.”

SK: What pushed you to make housing and health your top priorities? I know you spoke on it a bit earlier but how do those issues intertwine and influence each other?

JB: “I think this is the year of intersectionality. You have to have a safe, affordable place to call home to be healthy. If you’re spending a third or more on your housing, that means if that’s your cost-burden for rent, you have less money for other critical needs, if your car breaks down or you have a medical expense that comes up and your copay or deductible is super high. Also the stress of that impacts our health as well. Then for people who are unhoused and living on the street, that is a tremendous burden on a person’s health. Statistically speaking, a lot of individuals that are unhoused experience trauma, some have chronic health care conditions, have substance use disorder. So my work on the Olympia City Council, I worked on affordable housing and campaigned to provide permanent supportive housing, which is housing with wrap-around case management services, which we’re in desperate need of [in Washington]. We need 17,000 units of permanent supportive housing in Washington today. So being on the Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee really intersects with the work that I’ve done and intersects with my knowledge of health care. And ensuring that people have a safe affordable place to call home, that’s really foundational for a person’s wellbeing. 

Being on the health care committee, my day job is a health policy analyst for the Washington Association for Community Health. And we’re the trade association representing Washington’s health centers, and they are the largest network of providers for Medicaid patients in Washington state. So they’re an integral component to our state’s social safety net, and really delivering state of the art, comprehensive whole person care, really designed to meet a community where they are and reduce all the barriers. And they’ll partner and have resources like WIC navigators to find out if a person is available for additional benefits. That will enable them to get access to all of the care that they need, with the least amount of barriers to accessing that care. So considering my day job and all the work that I do there, I really apply that lens to thinking about whole person care and also people that are struggling and might need additional resources and assistance.”

SK: How has the experience of being both a freshman legislator and vice-chair of the Health Care and Wellness Committee been?

JB: “Well it’s baptism by fire, being in the Legislature. I have a little bit of an advantage because I was a legislative assistant. But still this is a virtual session, everything is different and remote. It’s very exciting for me to be working with Chair Cody, who just has so much institutional knowledge of health care and being able to work with her is incredible. I think this is an exciting year for us, because we’re really focusing on racial justice and equity in our work. But also we’re looking at COVID and the effect on our health care system, the vaccination rollout. This year health care is impacting everything in our state. I’d say it’s unique and it’s been a very fast paced learning experience. “

SK: Is there any issue in particular that you hope to address in your career as a legislator?

JB: “I’d say there are a couple bucket areas that I really want to focus on however long I’m here. Ensuring that everybody has a safe place to call home in Washington is a long-term goal that I have. Housing availability is something that we’re challenged with statewide. It’s not just happening in cities like Seattle, it’s happening all across the state in Spokane, in Tacoma, in Olympia. Housing prices continue to rise, so do rent prices, and that I see as really foundational to people’s wellbeing. So that’s something I really want to work on.

But also holistic, whole-person care, behavioral health is something that we have been focusing on in the legislature for a number of years. This year in the health care committee there have been a couple bills that we’ve worked on that I think are really important in the year that we’re in, including House Bill 1477, which creates the behavioral health crisis hotline. Also HB 1086, which creates the Office of Behavioral Health Consumer Advocacy, which we really need to coordinate the activities of real health advocates across the state and also creates a statewide advisory council. I’m working on HB 1218, which requires long-term care facilities to develop comprehensive disaster plans and be responsive to incoming communications. This is really about the experience of our long-term care residents during COVID and seeing that impact of being in isolation, not having access to family or even an essential support person. In some cases not having the ability to communicate requires that those long-term care facilities are responsive to incoming communications from families and that the resident has the right to an essential support person. This is really critical.

SK: Any other bills that you are sponsoring or cosponsoring?

JB: “There’s also a bill creating an office for community school-based health care programs, that’s HB 1225, I’m co-sponsor of that [bill]. There are incredible community health centers across the state. In the Vancouver area there’s one stand out leader. They’re all different and unique to the community they serve, but they’re able to provide integrated medical and behavioral health care services. That’s really about getting access to whole person care where the people are, and reducing barriers to that access, it’s much easier to have access right where that student is in school.

There’s HB 1348, which makes sure that individuals that are incarcerated maintain their Medicaid eligibility [while they are incarcerated] for up to 29 days. That’s really important because what we’re seeing is people lose that coverage while they’re incarcerated, and then when they get out they will get their coverage back, but there’s a lag in the time it takes to get them back on their Medicaid. And the highest rate of overdose for a person that is incarcerated is right when they get out. So if they’ve been getting access to services while they were incarcerated and have a plan, want to get into a clinic or get Suboxone right when they get out, not having Medicaid coverage is really a huge barrier. It’s really important for the state to make sure they have that benefit.”

SK:  Could you talk me through HB 1052, and why you are sponsoring it? 

JB: “This is my first bill that passed the floor of the House, and it’s the most technical bill on the planet. The Health Care Authority’s (HCA) group contracts will have performance standards to ensure that the policy holders are getting the benefit for their coverage. So they can hold those health care insurers accountable if they don’t meet those performance standards. And the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC), a couple years ago, approached the HCA and said ‘actually the way that we read this language right now, we think this conflicts with the OIC code, so you need to clarify this language so that it’s not in conflict with our code.’ They both agreed that this needed to happen.  So it’s really just clarifying when a performance standard isn’t met and there is a charge for it and making sure that it’s not going back and changing the rates. That’s what the OIC was concerned with. It [the performance standards currently] could be interpreted as going back and changing the rates that they had agreed to in a contract, which would not be allowed. This [bill] specifically states if you’re charged that rate for a break in your performance standards by clarifying that language it’s not in conflict with the OIC’s code anymore.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story was cross-posted on our sister site State of Reform.


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