Alumni spotlight: Alyssa Ward, Ph.D.
Alyssa Ward, Ph.D., L.C.P. (M.S. Clinical Psychology ‘04/H&S and Ph.D. Clinical Psychology ‘07/H&S), is the behavioral health clinical director for the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) and at the helm of the most expansive redesign of behavioral health services in the commonwealth of Virginia in a generation. Her leadership coordinating the state’s agencies, administration and care providers is transforming the future of Virginia’s behavioral health system.
Currently ranked 40th in the United States for access to mental healthcare, Virginia is undergoing a major reworking of its Medicaid behavioral health services with the goal of being ranked in the top ten states in the country. With the proposed changes, the state will move from a system that is crisis-driven and stretched to capacity to one that is prevention-focused and better staffed and equipped to serve the citizens of Virginia.
In her role, Ward is responsible for the operational oversight of the Division of Behavioral Health and acts as the DMAS lead for the system’s redesign. A licensed clinical psychologist with experiences as a clinician, supervisor, trainer, administrator and researcher in the areas of evidence-based practice and trauma-informed care, she points to her education and training in the Department of Psychology at VCU as the foundation for success in her role.
After completing her doctoral studies at VCU in 2007, Ward completed a residency at UNC-Chapel Hill Medical Center and fellowships at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the University of California-Los Angeles. She later worked at the largest child- and family-serving agency in Los Angeles County as an administrator, overseeing the implementation of 11 evidence-based practices across a spectrum of services from prevention to residential. She returned to Richmond in fall of 2016 for a faculty position in the VCU School of Medicine as a pediatric psychologist for the gastroenterology and neonatology divisions.
About a year after her return to Virginia, Ward was offered the opportunity to be a part of the state’s system-wide behavioral health redesign through a position with DMAS. For the 28% of Virginia Medicaid members who had a behavioral health diagnosis in 2017, the redesign identifies and addresses system shortages and options that prevented patients from receiving the best outcomes.
“There has been some incredible momentum building across the commonwealth and there are many great leaders coming together across public and private industries who share a vision for changing how we serve our most vulnerable citizens. We can do better, and we have a plan to take us there.”
In addition to the prevention and intervention treatment options the new system will offer, the redesign will also seek to address the state’s behavioral health care workforce and the need to further train, develop and maintain an expanded network of behavioral care providers to support the changes to services.
“The redesign is certainly making our services more comprehensive,” she says.
The shift away from the current crisis-oriented system with reactive treatment services to one that targets prevention and treatments is very much in line with her training under her graduate mentor, Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., now chair of the Department of Psychology. “I learned so much from him and the whole program at VCU. He taught me a lot about the way I think about improving lives and systems through evidence and relationships.”
In addition to managing working relationships with the state’s administration, her oversight of the implementation plan, impact analysis of the redesign and interagency coordination, Ward continues to contribute as a care provider herself as an affiliate faculty member and one afternoon of clinical practice at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond each week. She also currently serves as the program chair for the 2019 Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Convention, an organization for which she has served in a variety of leadership roles since she started her graduate work at VCU in 2001.
Southam-Gerow isn’t at all surprised by Ward's tireless commitment to bettering services both as a care provider and now as a policy maker. “A key to understanding Alyssa's success is that she is all in, all the time. She works tirelessly and gives 100% every time. To her work. To her family. To her friends. She is like the Energizer bunny. And we all benefit from her efforts.”
With the proposal finalized and delivered to the Virginia General Assembly by December of this year and a hopeful launch of January 2021, Virginians are very fortunate to have Ward's leadership, expertise and experience working to deliver better behavioral health care options for the commonwealth.