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A Texas Conference Blog - Austin, Texas (March 4-7, 2015)

2015-March 31
by Nick Randell, Program Officer






I had the opportunity to attend the Grant Makers in Health Conference in Austin a few weeks ago. This is a conference that Tower staff have not attended before.  In the last few years, the conference has widened its focus on behavioral health issues, so we decided it was time to give it a try.  I have to admit that I am just not ready (and maybe never will be) to "live tweet" anything.  So instead of real-time tweet-worthy impressions from the Live Music Capital of the World, you get this.  And you have to read to the end for the music review.

The first day of the conference, I attended a networking breakfast for Behavioral Health funders. This is a big event (the conference had over 600 attendees) - and there were probably 200 plus people at this early morning session. But it was soon clear that connections would not be too hard to make.  The conference attendee on my left was from my mother's home town in northwest rural Pennsylvania, the attendee on my right from a foundation that is a co-funder on one of our children's mental health grants in Massachusetts. Former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy spoke briefly at this session, beating the drum for evidence-based practices in mental health and support for implementation fidelity and greater focus on results.

The conference kicked off in earnest with a plenary speaker, Diane Meier, the director of The Center To Advance Palliative Care.   She had a degree from Oberlin College (my alma mater), so I settled in for what was sure to be a most excellent talk, though I wasn't sure palliative care would resonate with Tower's work.  Turns out that I had some misconceptions about palliative care (it's not just for the elderly or terminally ill), and the argument in favor of patient-centered case management does apply to our grantmaking. I cleaned up my notes a bit, and I offer them here:

  • System design actually drives patients to "misuse" emergency departments. Rx offices with recordings that tell patients to call 911, for example.
  • This talk is basically an argument for wider support of person-centered, family-focused palliative care.
  • Higher quality (like supportive case management) will lead to lower costs
  • Misconception that palliative care is about end of life care, more about serious illness, chronic pain, and related problems. Frailty and dementia are big issues. Focus on supporting caregiver is key. Palliative care appropriate for any age, any diagnosis.
  • Exhausted, unsupported caregivers are what lead to repeat emergency room visits.
  • Studies have shown that palliative care prolongs life. It is not synonymous with hospice. Reduction in depression may be key benefit.
  • Unpaid caregivers provide half a $billion/year in care value. US is only nation where health care of family member is number one cause of personal bankruptcy.

This will be a really long blog if I go into that level of detail on every presentation.  So here is my attempt to distill a number of sessions into a few key takeaways.

  • Session on funding for prevention and treatment of substance use disorders shared what some funders feel should be priorities: parent engagement, prevention/delay of early use, brief and early interventions.  A speaker that hoped to reduce some of the resistance to harm reduction strategies said something that stuck with me and I'll paraphrase:  "The folks that show up at needle exchanges really want to get help, want to get better."   If you want to get at root causes of adolescent substance abuse, trauma is a big part of the conversations.  Substance abuse is anywhere from 4-9 times more likely where there is a trauma history. Speakers from New Hampshire were open about that state's problems.  The state was the first to have overdose deaths surpass traffic fatalities.  Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) got bipartisan support in New Hampshire, largely because the ACA mandates substance use prevention and treatment and was seen as a way of funding responses to the the profound problem of heroin/opiate addiction in the state.
  • Head Start classrooms in Missouri are piloting a new trauma model.  Head Start Trauma Smart, developed by the Crittenton Children's Center in Kansas City, could bring trauma informed practices to preschool classrooms.  Presenters cited the figure that every dollar invested in early child care returns $11.
  • Session on building healthy communities with a focus on youth/intergenerational leadership, with examples drawn from programs in San Antonio, Texas.  The big takeaway was that a healthy community initiative that doesn't include youth voices is not going to fully reflect community perspectives.
  • The second day's plenary was about community development on a Lakota Nation reservation in South Dakota (a reservation the size of Delaware).  Improvements to housing conditions and enhanced community resources really reflected culture and grassroots interests by valuing community members over developers/architects in the planning process.
  • Failapalooza.  A session so named because it featured lessons learned from projects that didn't turn out so well.   A number of projects went south due to complacency around grantees that had a good track record but were less well suited to the task at hand.  Presenters talked about extracting meaningful insights while licking their wounds.  I think this session missed the opportunity to celebrate grantmaking that reduces the stigma of failure by encouraging openness and a spirit of experimentation.  There's another blog topic.

So about the music.  I was able to get to the Elephant Room and catch two sets from the Jitterbug Vipers, a staple of the Austin scene. Great fun!  Witty, mostly original songs (though a Billy Holliday cover was excellent) that crossed sultry swing era vocals with somewhat spaced out gypsy jazz.   Strong ensemble that embodies the "keep Austin weird" ethos.  That's Slim Richey, guitarist for the Vipers, in the photo accompanying this blog.

Photo by David Weaver / Do512
Flickr: Trailer Food Tuesdays at The Long Center
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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