In residence: Giving his patients a voice

Vital Signs » Spring 2014
photo of Nathan Schlicher with construction workers

Youngest Washington State senator fought the good fight for Medicaid patients

Nathan Schlicher, M.D., 30, was the youngest senator in the Washington State Senate. But being the youngest is nothing new for him.

As a child, he progressed quickly through school and graduated from high school at 14. He selected Pacific Lutheran University for college, because he could live on campus. He finished his undergraduate education in three years, earning degrees in biology and political science.

Schlicher knew he wanted to be a doctor. His father was a hospital administrator, and his mother was a nurse. However, the University of Washington was hesitant to admit a 17-year-old medical student. So, he went to law school at the University of Washington, finished in two years and practiced law during medical school.

He balanced a law career and medical school carefully. He worked in the morning and evening as an attorney with a law firm. “It was a challenge,” said Schlicher, who met his wife, Jessica Kennedy, the first day of medical school. “But it was worth it.”

Schlicher and his wife came to Ohio for their residencies. He was in the emergency medicine residency program at the Boonshoft School of Medicine from 2006 through 2009. She completed her residency through the Miami Valley Hospital Family Medicine program, which is now part of the medical school.

“My wife and I enjoyed being in Ohio,” said Schlicher, who recalled his rotations at Good Samaritan Hospital, Miami Valley Hospital, Kettering Medical Center, Wright-Patterson Medical Center, and Greene Memorial Hospital. “But we also knew we wanted to come home to our community and family.”

He credits his residency with helping him prepare for what he faces on a daily basis in the emergency room. “The lessons about dealing with difficult patients, caring for those who may see the world and their needs differently, and learning about the cultural differences were all great training for my current job,” he said.

Schlicher works at the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Tacoma, Vital Signs Spring 2014 32 Washington. He also serves nationally as the associate director of the Patient Safety Organization for TeamHealth. Jessica is a family physician working at the Harrison Medical Center Urgent Care facilities in Belfair and Port Orchard. They live in Gig Harbor, and have three young children, David, Juliette, and Henry.

More than two years ago, Schlicher entered politics when state officials decided Medicaid would not cover conditions it no longer considered emergencies, such as chest pain, seizure, coma, and shortness of breath, among others, to save $21 million through the ER is for Emergencies Program.

“It was reckless and dangerous,” Schlicher said. “I worked with the agency, sued the state, and rewrote the law. That program is now improving care and saving the state about $31 million a year.”

That experience persuaded him to enter politics. “After that, I decided that my patients needed a voice in the legislature,” he said. “I believe I can provide that.”

A seat in the Washington Senate was open. So Schlicher, a Democrat, applied for the appointment, campaigned, and was selected in January 2013 to replace the Former 26th Legislative District Sen. Derek Kilmer, who was elected to Congress.

As state senator he worked on several issues including the coordination of care for mental health, coordination of diabetic care across the state, and expansion of the ER is for Emergencies Program. He found long-term stable funding for the prescription-monitoring program. In addition, he worked to mandate CPR training in high school.

“Being the only physician, especially emergency medicine physician, in the legislature, brings a very different look at the world,” said Schlicher, who continued to practice as an emergency medicine physician, working six shifts a month when the legislature was not in session. “Other legislators talk about the problems with the system, but I live in them every day with my patients.”

He is passionate about representing the poor and disenfranchised. “I fought for them by serving in the legislature and bringing their voice to Olympia,” said Schlicher, who also served as a lay preacher in multiple Methodist churches. “I worked hard to voice the problems they face in their daily lives from employment to education to health care.”

While much of his work in the Senate was on health care, he also has worked to save ferry service and reduce the cost on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge administration. In addition, he worked on the overall state budget pushing for progress on education and getting people back to work.

Because he was appointed, Schlicher had to run again in the Nov. 5 election to keep his seat in the final 12 months of former Sen. Kilmer’s term. Despite endorsements from the Seattle Times and other newspapers, his opponent, Republican State Rep. Jan Angel, was elected in a tight race last fall.

Schlicher’s campaign started with a 20-point deficit and was able to close within a few points. “In a year in which we predicted a higher Republican turn out, and a 13-year politician ready to battle, we have closed the gap within three points,” Schlicher said in a thank you letter to supporters. “This election was the toughest and closest election our opponent has ever had.”

He encouraged his supporters to continue to fight. “Regardless of the results, we cannot stop fighting for Washington state,” he said. “We must keep fighting for candidates that stand up for everyday citizens and fight for working families.” VS

—Heather Maurer

Last edited on 09/22/2015.