After talking about the members from Greater Houston working on the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees, we wanted to turn to the local organizations here in Harris County who have been working with the Legislature on bills and explore the services that come with legislative action. The organizational partners that are helping make a difference this Session through advocacy and education are vital to the progress of mental health policy in Texas. Here are a few of their stories.
This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.
We’ve mentioned both Legislation and legislators, but what ties those two together are the effects that bills and funding have at home. Here in Houston, we are very fortunate to have a number of organizations that are both directly providing services as well as pushing policy agendas to improve mental health outcomes.
I want to start off with our partners at One Voice Texas with the United Way. One Voice is a collaborative network of public, private, and non-profit organizations in the greater Houston area working together to ensure that the health and human services needs of all Texans are addressed through education/awareness, program development, advocacy, regulation, and funding.
Lillian Ortiz is the Director of Behavioral Health Policy as plays a major role in their legislative advocacy in Austin. This year, One Voice has been focused on Home and Community Based Services as a major plank in their policy platform. In my interview with Lillian, she mentions the unique qualities that have allowed for One Voice to connect to legislators to direct service providers and as well as experienced government relation professionals.
Bill Kelly: I’m here with Lillian Ortiz with One Voice Texas. Lillian has been very much involved with the government relations and public policy side of emphasizing behavioral health policy within Texas and particularly with home and community based services. Lillian, thank you very much for joining me today. I wanted to talk about some of the activities you did during the interim, particularly on bringing law makers in to focus on talking about behavioral health. How did that go for you?
Lillian Ortiz: So, with One Voice one of the things that we are able to do is really kind of bring all of our membership together and the networking that is available within our membership and really reach out to elected officials and say ‘Come in, meet our membership, hear about what it is that providers in our community are doing also here about what it is that they need to be able to serve their constituencies.’ So we are very lucky that we have connections with so many legislators. They have been willing to come in, sit down and have rather informal conversations with our membership and hear what it is that’s going on in the community, what our continuum of services looks like and what the next steps may be. And one of those next steps obviously is home and community based services.
Kelly: Absolutely and when we talk about specifically House Bill 1393, I know Representative Turner is going to be carrying that but some of the conversations you’ve had in meetings I’ve been able to attend you’ve had Chairman John Otto of House Appropriations, you’ve had Senator Joan Huffman talk pretty extensively about mental health services in different forms that you’ve been able to put on. That’s got to have some great traction over all.
Ortiz: It does and what I think that it shows is that, one: behavioral health in general has become a very recognized topic in the state legislature which we are very thankful for but of course that took years of advocacy work, you know different levels of advocacy work at different levels so seeing that payoff is a great thing. It’s also a testament I think to when you bring people from the community together into membership organizations. So we’re a little bit different than other policy groups sometimes because of that membership and I think that’s our strength. So we have people who do government relations every day and that’s their jobs. We have people who serve clients every day and that’s their job. So the beauty of bringing those two groups together to a setting where a legislator can come in and get more a of a high level kind of briefing from on something from somebody but at the same time turn around and ask questions of somebody who is actually delivering the services everyday it lets them understand things in a different way and I think they have been very receptive to that and they enjoy those interactions and that’s part of why when we send an invitation we usually have them say ‘yes.’
Another bill that has a history with a local Houston organization is Rep. Cindy Burkett’s House Bill 1541 on peer support services. The Houston Recovery Initiative, based out of the Houston Sobering Center, has been working to lead organizations that work with addiction and substance abuse populations. I spoke with Suzanne Jarvis and Katherine Little, the two co-chairs of the Advocacy Committee for Recovery Initiative about how they are organized, their work with peers, and what they are doing to advocate in Austin.
Bill Kelly: “I’m here today with Suzanne Jarvis and Katherine Little of the Houston Recovery Initiative. Thank you so much for joining me today. Now Suzanne, I want to start off with you and talk about what is the Houston Recovery Initiative and what is some of the work you are doing here in Houston?”
Suzanne Jarvis: “Okay, so the Houston Recovery Initiative was started five years ago and it is basically a grassroots coalition and the bottom line is we want to create a recovery friendly community. So it’s open to anybody to attend and started by Leonard Kincaid. And what they did when they first came together was to identify the top issues of recovery in the community that needed to be addressed and then they took those top issues and they boiled them down to six or seven workgroups and from there the workgroups have been doing work with the volunteers in our volunteer coalition. And there is a national recovery movement and the Houston Recovery Initiative is technically a recovery oriented system of care. So we have these workgroups and a lot has come out of this initiative around housing, around the recovery coach academy, around community education. And Katherine and I are co-chairs of recovery advocacy our goal, or our objective, is to get the recovery message out to the community and to start to de-stigmatize addiction by shifting the focus from the problem of addiction to the solution of recovery because there are so many folks in recovery but no one really talks about it. People don’t talk about addiction. Only in public do you hear the horror stories but you don’t hear the success stories. So our job is to help bring people together, to start talking about the success stories and by educating people so that they have a voice in terms of getting the proper resources allocated to start to create recovery from the communities.”
Bill Kelly: “Absolutely. And I’ll turn it to Katherine real quick. Katherine is co-chair of the advocacy committee. You all have been doing a number of different activities already during session. Could you speak a little bit to those?”
Katherine Little: “Yeah so recently we went to the capitol to show the 50 minute version of ‘The Anonymous People.’ We rallied the recovery community here in Houston as well as the recovery community in Austin and Suzanne and I went up to the capitol and spoke to a number of legislators about the event and then had the 50 minute screening. So ‘The Anonymous People’ is a film about recovery and it really speaks for itself and, as Suzanne mentioned, it shifts from the problem of addiction to the solution of recovery. So it was kind of a big deal for us. It was our first legislative event to get the recovery community out there strong and we had about seven different staffers from legislative offices show up and we were able to talk about recovery, show the film and then speak a little to peer support, which is really what we are trying to educate on this session. Another thing we are working on here in the community is having a peer recovery lunch and learn with One Voice Texas so we’ve been working with Lillian Ortiz to organize that. Peer recovery is becoming a big deal at session in Austin but what we want to do is educate the community here on what they can do if anything were to come from the Austin work.”
Whenever groups are working together, it makes their work more effective, and the Recovery Initiative definitely takes advantage of this both in Austin and here in Houston.
Now, I wanted to give an example of a group not looking at advocacy but instead looking to provide information. We’ve talked before about our friends at the Meadows Mental Health Public Policy Institute but I wanted to specifically talk about Dr. Andy Keller. Dr. Keller is Executive Vice President for Policy and Programs and a licensed psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in behavioral health policy and particular expertise in health and human services integration, behavioral health financing, managed care systems and purchasing, and implementation of empirically supported practices for adults and children. You know, the basics. Dr. Keller is responsible for all behavioral health policy work and all policy deliverables of the Meadows Institute.
I wanted to include a clip of Dr. Keller in talking about a common sense policy that we hope finds traction in the Legislature this session: helping incarcerated Texans keep their Medicaid coverage. Here’s Dr. Keller:
“It’s not a lack of the right people so what is the thing? I’m going to tell you that I think the thing that is lacking is a systemic perspective. There are system barriers here and I want to talk about just three of them. And one of them was talked about — I think it was Sherriff Garcia that mentioned it this morning – is the suspension of Medicaid benefits. Now, I’m not going to get up here and tell you that we need to do more Medicaid in Texas. If someone asks me that question, I will go on about that. But what I am going to tell you is that if we decide that we’re going to give someone Medicaid – and we don’t give that to many adults, we give it to a lot of kids, but we don’t give it to many adults – if we are going to take the time to give someone Medicaid, the least we can do is let them keep it if they get in trouble and not make them go through all of these hoops again. Not because, you don’t even have to be a decent person, but you just have to not be stupid. I mean, it’s a waste of resources to make these folks go through that again so if we could get behind that, and to allow Medicaid benefits to be suspended a reasonable amount of time – actually as long as we possibly can – because we would like people if they are still eligible to be able to keep that when they come out because we would like to keep them out.”
As we’ve discussed on this blog at length, when the criminal justice system becomes the safety net for people suffering from mental illness, we better take positive steps to provide needed medical care or get ready for recidivism. I note that Dr. Keller was speaking at the Texas Public Policy Foundation “Smart of Crime” forum, which shows that providing better access to mental healthcare isn’t just liberal or conservative but frankly pragmatic and right for Texas.
Finally, I wanted to brag on our friends from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, better known as NAMI, for their advocacy on Capitol Day on February 19th. Coordinating with other NAMI chapters and mental health advocates from across the state for Mental Health Awareness Day, leaders in Austin heard first hand of the need to invest in services.
I took the following video of Sen. Charles Schwertner’s address to the assembled crowd on the south steps of the Capitol right before advocates began meeting with Legislators and their staff about specific bills and gauging their support.
“As a physician and as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services committee I am committed to ensuring that Texas meets the mental health challenges of its citizens. It’s right for them, it’s right for their families, it’s right for our communities and it’s also right for our taxpayers.”
So with all of these groups working together, and a great local team of Legislators in positions of leadership for securing resources, the Legislature is poised to continue the momentum for mental health. So what groups need both the money and bills to get badly needed services? Let’s start where I think just about everyone agrees we should start with: our veterans. More on that, next time.
This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.