Washington healthcare leaders launch initiative to tackle industry inequities

Rogelio Riojas has been at the helm of Sea Mar Community Health Centers since it opened in 1978. What began as a single clinic in Seattle's South Park neighborhood has become a statewide organization that provides healthcare to underserved populations in 13 Washington counties.

His latest project is a partnership with Community Health Plan of Washington CEO Leanne Berge and the University of Washington Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity to seed endowment for first-generation, low-income students aspiring to careers in healthcare.

The inspiration behind the endowment was Mr. Riojas' own career trajectory. He studied political science as an undergraduate at the University of Washington before earning a master's in public health administration, opportunities he said wouldn't have been possible without the school's Equal Opportunity Program.

"What that program did is it recruited people that couldn't normally get into the university through the normal channels. So they gave me that opportunity, and gave a lot of other students that opportunity, people of color. And so as a result of the University of Washington starting that program, other universities within the state began to do the same. And so from that effort we developed a strong professional community."

The decision to partner with Sea Mar and the school on the initiative was an obvious choice for Ms. Berge, who has been the Community Health Plan of Washington's CEO for five years. The payer serves 250,000 Medicaid and Medicare members throughout the state.

"I was very interested in public policy and civil rights work," she said. "I started my career in Washington, D.C., around public policy issues. That's why I became a lawyer. But I quickly realized that healthcare was the space where I could probably do more to change the system than in a lot of other areas. And the system needed changing. It still needs to change."

Sea Mar and CHPW have gifted $25,000 each to the university's Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, and are working with other community organizations to raise additional funding. Once the endowment reaches $100,000, it will provide scholarships to students in health-related fields.

"There are so many root causes to the inequities that exist in people's health and well-being," Ms. Berge said. "Improving the pipeline for healthcare providers that are from backgrounds that are similar to the backgrounds of our patients and members of underserved communities is a really important factor to address. The opportunity to do that with this endowment is something very connected to our mission."    

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