At times, the delivery of behavioral health services seems as much a policy discipline as a health discipline. Behavioral Healthcare recently polled more than 600 industry leaders to gauge their views on the nature of today’s politics and the key issues relevant to mental health and addiction. In general, respondents to the 2016 Policy Survey seemed largely optimistic and significantly engaged in tracking federal and state strategies.
For example, 59.8% say they’re following many policy issues or consider themselves a policy wonk, and about half have helped a state or federal policymaker by offering expert perspectives. Additionally, more than 37% have authored a position paper with recommendations for change or work for an organization that has.
“It’s really promising to see how just many people closely follow policy news of relevance to them and are engaging with lawmakers by providing perspectives from the industry,” says Rebecca Farley, senior director of policy and advocacy for the National Council for Behavioral Health. “It gave me optimism because lawmakers are not necessarily experts in mental health and addiction treatment issues. They don’t know what it’s like to run an organization and to treat people with those issues.”
While more than 60% of respondents say they have never participated in a Hill Day, the one-on-one interaction is often the best opportunity for providers to build their influence. It’s true that Hill Day events typically involve meetings with staff members rather than the lawmakers themselves, but it’s important to note that the staffers function as the legislators’ key information sources, Farley says. They are exactly the right people to establish relationships with.
She says one behavioral health leader operating in one state might feel powerless to influence Capitol Hill, but his or her ideas are often welcomed because they provide a real-world perspective. And the personal interaction makes a difference when trying to get a lawmaker’s attention.
“When you participate in a Hill Day, you realize folks on the Hill are desperate for resources, support and information on what they’re doing that affects the people who live and breathe these issues,” she says.
If you’re meeting with staff, it’s important to provide clear, unified messages on specific issues. Leaving behind a printed sheet with your contact information and your talking points also can help the staff members convey the message forward after the meeting.
“You’re not someone who just signed your name on a petition or posted an angry Tweet,” Farley says. “You care so much, you invested your time and money to come to Washington, D.C., and made your case to them in person, and that matters.”
She says National Council sees an uptick in the number of legislators that come on as supporters of legislative priorities in the weeks following a Hill Day. Participants might also be called on in the future as resources for Congressional leaders seeking information updates.
Last year, National Council and its partners organized more than 600 people for an industry Hill Day, representing 39 states and resulting in more than 300 personal meetings. The 2016 Hill Day takes place June 6 and 7.
While not all states were represented in the Policy Survey, 53% of respondents believe their respective state governors are supportive of their views on behavioral health policies. It seems clear that there is a general feeling that as a party, the Democrats are seen as more supportive: Nearly 70% of respondents believe so, followed by Republicans (9%) and Independents (11.2%).
“What’s not surprising is the political orientation of this group, which is heavily Democratic,” says Michael S. Shafer, PhD, professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy at Arizona State University. “It speaks to some of the issues the Republican party in general deals with—or does not deal with—in that it doesn’t come across as a particularly caring, compassionate side.”
Likewise, government agencies and their appointed leaders are not always embraced by the tax payers who fund their budgets or the constituents they are assigned to help. In spite of recent policy proposals that would essentially dismantle the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly two-thirds of survey respondents have a favorable view of the current work being done by SAMHSA with 72.8% rating it as excellent or good.
SAMHSA offers more than 40 consumer-facing and industry-facing campaigns, such as National Prevention Week, May 15 to 21, 2016, and drug-free workplace programs.