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'Agenda for Change' Conference Brings Big-Picture Issues Back Into Focus

February 10, 2020
Ron Manderscheid
By Ron Manderscheid, Executive Director, NACBHDD and NARMH
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

“We are successful at the small things, but we are failing at the large ones.”

With that bald indictment, Patrick Kennedy, former congressman from Rhode Island, opened Agenda for Change: Unite, Connect, Act, a gathering of a broad section of behavioral health leaders that was held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6.

And what are we failing at? Full parity. Full access to needed care. Reducing suicide and opioid overdose rates. Achieving good outcomes.

Sponsored by the Kennedy Forum, Agenda for Change clearly was the 2020 state of the union for behavioral health. Kennedy pointed to glacial progress on parity at a time when most persons who have behavioral health conditions are struggling every day to get access to care. Andy Slavitt, former administrator of CMS under the Obama administration, pointed to continuing stigma toward persons with behavioral health conditions, and the subtle role that stigma plays in parity violations. These points were driven home by Carmen B., the mother of a son who attempted suicide. Her heart wrenching story highlighted severe problems with insurance access as well as problems with the spectrum of services available to her son.

Representatives David Trone (D-MD) and Judy Chu (D-CA) reported on several key pieces of legislation being developed on the Hill to improve care access for all age groups—from children to seniors. Former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) reported on progress being made to address suicide.

Kennedy and Smith serve as co-chairs of Mental Health for US, a broad-based advocacy effort focused on national candidates running for office in 2020. In a light-hearted moment, Kennedy noted that “US” means both “us” and “U.S.”, to point out that we all are impacted by the tragedy of mental illness. Dan Gillison, the new CEO of NAMI, recounted his own story of losing a cousin to mental illness at an early age, and how this has impacted him throughout his entire adult life.

As the event moved from Unite and Connect to Act, a panel of field experts led by Joe Pyle, president of the Scattergood Foundation, provided some sage advice.

Ben Miller, chief strategy officer of the Well Being Trust reported the release last week of the Trust’s “Healing the Nation.” He also noted the importance of moving toward coordinated specialty care.

Brandon Staglin, president of One Mind and a person in recovery from schizophrenia, emphasized the importance of research if we are to develop appropriate understanding of schizophrenia and the functioning of the brain.

Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, reported the release of “Health in Mind,” a new monograph that outlines a strategy for more effective giving. She also emphasized the importance of collaboration among government, the private sector, and philanthropy in addressing our major problems in mental health.

Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, rounded out the panel. Thompson pointed to the critical role of the workplace as both a site to foster resiliency and a site to improve access to care. He concluded by noting that, “Millennials will demand better care from us.”

It seems very appropriate that Agenda for Change was held in the beautiful Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. It was in this very room that President John F. Kennedy announced his run for the presidency. Three short years later, he signed the watershed Community Mental Health Centers Act. This Act has reverberated across the past six decades to motivate all of us to do our very best to improve the access, quality and outcome of mental healthcare in the U.S. for all who suffer from these conditions. Unite, Connect, Act is today’s response to Kennedy’s challenge.

At the conclusion of the morning event, a young woman from Washington, D.C., challenged the gathering to solve the mental health problems in her local community. Her sincerity and enthusiasm give hope to all of us for the future.

Our hats are off to Patrick Kennedy and the Kennedy Forum for hosting such an outstanding and touching event. We salute you, and we salute your goals.

Materials from the event can be obtained by texting PROGRAM to 444-999.     

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