Guest Blog: Community Health and Weatherization Take Action on High-Risk Asthma in Low-Income Households of Washington State

Caring for a child or family member struggling to breathe can be terrifying. Many of the persistent conditions and triggers for asthma and other respiratory illnesses are found in low-income homes.  To address these conditions Washington State is developing a new partnership between its low-income Weatherization Assistance Program and local community public health services that could bring significant relief and health care cost savings to households suffering with severe asthma symptoms.

Years of pioneering work in communities throughout the state had hinted at the potential for improved outcomes and health care cost savings from a collaborative, integrated approach to addressing asthma in high-risk, low-income households. Washington’s network of weatherization service providers already had emerging evidence of the increased impact of such a collaborative approach from the King County Housing Authority’s Seattle-King County Healthy Homes Project study between 2009 and 2012. Similarly, the Opportunity Council of Bellingham had 10 years of experience with “healthy homes” work.  Helping push those early efforts forward was a statewide legislative initiative organized by key Community Action Program (CAP) agency leaders allied with asthma network professionals around the State of Washington.  In the 2015 legislative session their efforts resulted in passage of a landmark bill.

Washington State House of Representatives Bill 1720 allowed state capital funds allocated for weatherization work through the state’s Matchmaker Program to also be used for other home improvements that could reduce risks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in target homes.

The Department of Commerce’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative launched last July with a $5 million plan to add “healthy home” improvements to its weatherization work and to test strategies that could best integrate weatherization of high-risk asthma households with health interventions. The Weatherization Plus Health initiative is providing  $2 million out of its $5 million plan for competitive grants to eight to nine  pilot collaborations in a variety of urban and rural communities  that will test and document effective strategies through June 2017. The initiative will provide the experience of collaborations between government agencies and their health departments and specialized asthma education efforts, community action agencies and community health worker service programs, and tribal asthma clinics and tribal weatherization programs.

With the collaboration of the Washington State University (WSU) Energy Program evaluation staff, Commerce has also designed short and long-term strategies to define and demonstrate the potential impacts of an integrated program that could be replicated around the country.

As we collectively analyze our experiences and document results through the WSU evaluation, Commerce will work to attract ongoing funding to support the next key step towards documenting Medicare program savings. We hope to work with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to share data and show that our approaches are viable and can be replicated.  Ultimately we hope to explore the potential for Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement based on demonstrated health care cost savings.

This is an exciting time to be pushing the traditional boundaries of weatherization programs to maximize new non-energy health benefits that we can document. We will share our results along the way with the Weatherization Assistance Program and with forums like the State of Poverty Blog.

Hans Berg is Weatherization Leverage Manager with the Washington State Department of Commerce. He and his team invite your interest and comments at