WASHINGTON, D.C—June 6th, over 600 behavioral health advocates from all over the United States ventured to the Nation’s Capitol to advocate on behalf of individuals with mental illness and/or substance use disorders during the National Council for Behavioral Health’s annual Hill Day. It was much milder than a typical June in The Federal City, but all it took was a spark from speakers such as President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, Linda Rosenberg and former Congressman, Patrick Kennedy—amongst many others—to spark a fire that led all the way from the Hyatt Regency ballroom to the steps of the Congressional office buildings.
Team Georgia at National Council for Behavioral Health’s Hill Day
The GACSB was proud to be a part of such an incredible event. Executive Director, Robyn Garrett, served as State Captain for the 5th year in a row! With the help of representatives from GACSB member organizations, Lookout Mountain and View Point Health, along with some friends of the Association, Kevin Hines and Joe Williams of 17th & Montgomery, the GACSB was able to discuss a variety of legislative issues with nearly all of the Georgia Congressmen or their staff members.
Linda Rosenberg, MSW, President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health
The largest behavioral health advocacy event in the United States spanned from June 6th to June 7th, and was the final product of collaborations between the National Council for Behavioral Health, and 14 other national behavioral health organizations. Although the coffee provided on Monday morning was far-less-than delicious or strong enough to wake the jet-lagged half of the crowd, Linda Rosenberg’s passionate ‘welcome speech’ provided a much more effective awakening for the group. Throughout her discussion she provided an overview of the state of affairs in the field, and essentially engaged attendees to join in her ‘call to arms’ to let each and every voice of those in attendance echo through the halls of the Congress buildings, and usher in a paradigm shift to better support those living with mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
When Rosenberg left the stage, she handed the microphone to William Cope Myers of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Myers spoke briefly of the struggles that he has faced in his life, being an individual in long term recovery. His first-hand account of the struggles and the overwhelming need for political intervention to better support individuals in need of the services provided by a number of individuals in the crowd, presented a very important message—our stories have the power to change lives. As Myers left the stage, the crowd was on their feet applauding him and fellow behavioral health advocacy titan Rosenberg for the stellar opening session that they provided.
Hill Day proceeded with a group of expert panelists who provided their insights on how advocates can work to achieve comprehensive mental health and addiction reform through Congress. Experts included in these discussions were, Vice President of ____ for the National Council, Chuck Ingoglia, Debbie Plotnick for Mental Health America, Andrew Sperling for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Phyllis Foxworth for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. With Linda Rosenberg moderating, nearly everyone in attendance knew that the difficult questions would be the ones up for discussion amongst the panelists, but the nature of the inquiries did not seem to faze any one of the participants. As dialogue stimulated the thoughts and subsequent rebuttals amongst the panelists, the crowd was hanging on each and every word, hoping that the information that the speakers provided would assist them in their Congressional meetings on day 2 of Hill Day. One of the overwhelming themes of the discussion pertained to the necessity to address behavioral health issues on a continuum in terms of prevention, early intervention, the integration of care, and sustainable funding outside of the traditional unsustainable grant programs. The panelists urged individuals to ask their Representatives and Senators to vote for appropriations towards behavioral healthcare, so that the public safety net can remain in tact, and to explain to their Representatives and Senators that grant-based funding as it remains is indicative of disparities between how physical and behavioral health issues are addressed. It is important to note that on many occasions throughout the event, the issue was raised regarding the lack of enforcement of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, and the subsequent rules set forth in 2013
After a robust overview of the current political landscape of behavioral health, David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report and Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, provided attendees about what the upcoming 2016 elections will mean in the field. The two political Editors & analysts discussed their speculations relating to the implications each Presidential nominee will have on the field of behavioral health if they are elected. They each took their confab further as to contemplate the political shifts in Congress that November may hold. Following the light-hearted session, one thing was made clear: the United States will be seeing drastic changes come January 20th, 2017.
Nathan Gonzales from the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report Speaks to Hill Day Attendees
Hill Day gave all of the individuals in attendance the opportunity to attend two breakouts in succession to gain more insight on some of the items that the morning sessions discussed. Topics included: Protecting patient privacy in an integrated care environment—modernizing 42 CFR Part 2, New Treatments and Challenges to Access, Advocacy 101, Advanced Advocacy, Advancing Health IT for Behavioral Health: National Trends and Opportunities, CCBHCs: What’s Next, and a session to further dissect the talking points provided by the National Council.
The groups made their pilgrimage back down the two flights of escalators back into the Regency Ballroom with Chris Carroll, Director of Health Care Financing and Systems Integration for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), already on stage to present the SAMHSA Agency Update. His rundown of the Administration’s strategic initiatives included addressing the prevention of substance abuse and mental illness, health care and health systems integration, trauma and justice, recovery support, health information technology, and workforce development. The pending GACSB strategic plan for fiscal year 2017 adheres largely to SAMHSA’s strategic initiatives, and the Association works pragmatically to alleviate problems related to all of these issues for the Georgia Community Service Boards. The inclusion of SAMHSA’s update in the Hill Day program was essentially to let all of the attendees know what kind of programs and initiatives that can be possible through advocating for behavioral health to Congress.
Following Carroll’s succinct rundown of SAMHSA’s upcoming strategic plan, the group was pleased to welcome U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (Michigan) to Hill Day. Stabenow conveyed the presence of bipartisan support for the Excellence in Mental Health Act (S. 2525/H.R. 4567) and the Mental Health Access Improvement Act (S. 1830/H.R. 2759), and the need for action now! Through powerful rhetoric she brought the crowd to their feet, as she provided an update on the Excellence in Mental Health Act, and the way she showcased her pragmatic demeanor towards getting the piece of legislation passed. When the crowd quelled, and Senator Stabenow departed, the second group of panelists took to the stage to focus on addiction legislation that are fast approaching the floors of the U.S. Senate and House. The group was comprised of experts in the field of addiction such as: Chuck Ingoglia and Becky Vaughn, Vice President of Addictions, for the National Council, Rob Morrison of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, and John Luke Riley for Young People in Recovery. With Ingoglia moderating the discussions the panelists batted around a variety of topics from the re-authorization of funding of provisions under the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) of 2015 (S. 524/H.R. 953)—which most recently passed through the House on May 13, 2016, and is currently awaiting conference on House amendments—to funding SAMHSA initiatives (i.e. Community Mental Health Services and the Substance Abuse Prevention & Treatment block grants) and training for first responders on crisis intervention (H.R. 2646). Due to Congress and President Obama’s agreement to pose strict caps on discretionary spending set forth by the 2011 Budget Control Act over the next two years ($15 billion available for non-defense discretionary spending above the cap), the panelists provided ways to frame certain talking points and requests pertaining to the aforementioned legislative items to engage Congressional members in a way that emphasizes the need for financial investments now that will not only save lives, but reduce long term costs. After the question and answer period with the panelists, the structured portion of the first day of the event came to a close.
The event reconvened on Tuesday, when State Captains met up with their delegates. As Hill Day attendees filed into the room, which now had each table labeled alphabetically by state, Georgia delegates enjoyed a hearty breakfast just prior to commencement of the program for the day. When Linda Rosenberg made her way to address the crowd, she was followed by champion behavioral health advocate, visionary, former U.S. Senator, and the archetype of long-term recovery, Patrick Kennedy.
Before Kennedy began to speak, Rosenberg reminded those who attended Hill Day last year about the work done through the efforts of actress and Musician, Demi Lovato. “She is an amazing advocate; sharing her story and encouraging everyone to do good things, and she asked all of us—all Americans to speak up, and the response was extraordinary,” Rosenberg declared as she segued into introducing one of the video products that was filmed in part during last year’s Hill Day for Lovato’s Be Vocal Campaign. The somber video gained the attention of the crowd, as it cycled through a multitude of short audio and video clips that aim to empower those on the road toward recovery. Ultimately, the campaign aims for people to speak up for those in need, and spread the word that recovery from mental illness and/or substance use disorders and living a life of wellness is possible.
Linda Rosenberg provides an overview of the Be Vocal Campaign
The message to “Be Vocal” was handed off to author and champion of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, Patrick Kennedy.
Former Senator Patrick Kennedy fires up the crowd at Hill Day
He began his rhetoric by discussing the power of advocacy and the collective voice. After the introduction commending Linda Rosenberg, the National Council, and their ability to advocate cooperatively with a number of partners for such a great cause, he began with a story. As the youngest member of Congress, when Kennedy was 27, and being from the smallest State of Rhode Island and the minority party, he noted how he was able to have his name first on a bill that stated, “the brain is part of the body.” Kennedy continued to expound, “This had to be debated for many years because Congress couldn’t really agree on the proposition that the brain was part of the body, and then in turn somebody thought reimbursing for illnesses in the brain in the same way they reimburse for any other illness in the body…now that was hard for us to come to agreement on, so it took us a long time, but thankfully, in 2008, we got the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act signed into law, as President George W. Bush was hitting the exits.” He included that no one was really aware that Bush signed the $3.4 billion act, because it was included in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which appropriated bailout money to the Nation’s banks. “Whatever it takes to pass this thing,” Kennedy recounted, as he provided a response to Senator Chris Dodd’s suggestion for him to essentially sponsor the grossly unpopular and largest bailout of our Nation’s banks in the history of our country. The unpopularity of this piece of legislation, and Kennedy’s willingness to place his name on this item, attests to his devotion to mental health and addiction reform. He continued on to say, “The exciting thing that is changing in mental health today, is that were going through the front door to get things passed, not the back door.” The former Congressman’s empowering speech continued, mentioning that it is unacceptable to see the public health problems of suicide and overdose, and the reduction in life expectancy due to untreated mental illness. He beckoned the crowd to go to their Representatives and Senators, and include that, “This is a historic moment; all of the things are aligning to make this an opportunity for us to get fundamental change in the way we address mental health and addiction, [since] it’s something that is essential to every aspect of American society.” He expressed the inability to have a fully functional education system without social and emotional learning; he mentioned the inability to have a productive workforce without adequate workplace support for mental health—depression, anxiety, and addiction treatment in the workplace; he explained that health care systems cannot treat mental health and addiction as marginal issues. “Mental health and addiction treatment need to be at the center of every aspect of American society,” Kennedy reiterated.
A notion of discontent then became evident in the man’s demeanor, as he explained how grant funding for mental illness and addictions are unacceptable, and advocates must push for changes in the system that aim for more sustainable supports for these conditions. “We want Congress to go big before they go home, and we don’t want them—in the moment of the apex of this national public health issue—to do something mediocre or marginal to address this fundamental issue that fellow American’s are dying at record rates that’s literally effecting the life expectancy rates of all Americans,”
Kennedy demanded. As his words turned to conviction he explained that, “Now is not the time for us to get patted on the head and [be told], ‘Just take this little pilot program; just take this little authorization.’ If we accept that, we are in collective denial!”
Kennedy proceeded to discuss some other suggested talking points for advocates to utilize when approaching their Representatives and Senators from calling for insurance information disclosure to mental health first aid. His profound closing statement, which yielded a standing ovation from the crowd included, “This is a civil rights issue. For us to have our community and [people] in recovery be treated as human beings with full dignity that their illness is no different than any other illness, then they could be treated effectively. Then we need to say stop discriminating against those with mental illness and addiction, because not only is it against the law, but it is a violation of human rights, and it is a violation of civil rights.”
Health Policy Associate, Josiah Conrad and Executive Director, Robyn Garrett talk shop with Patrick Kennedy
Patrick Kennedy’s words were very effective in getting advocates to rally behind the articles of proposed legislation tucked in the folders sitting in front of each individual in attendance during day two of National Council’s Hill Day.
From there, along with advocates from all over the Country, the team from Georgia ventured over to the Congressional Office buildings to meet with Georgia’s legislators. The GACSB would like to thank Representative David Scott and Martha Cramer, Representative Barry Loudermilk and Colin Carr, Representative Rick Allen and Katie Hunter, Representative Tom Graves and Jason Murphy, Representative Buddy Carter, Representative Rob Woodall, Representative Jody Hice, Senator Johnny Isakson and Senator David Purdue for taking time out of their busy schedules to accommodate the group.