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Blogging the Grantmakers in Health Conference -- Boston, MA (June 21-23, 2017)


By Nick Randell and Chuck Colston, Program Officers and Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer
2017-July 5

I've gotten in the habit of turning attendance at the Grantmakers in Health (GIH) Conference into a blog post, so here we go for a third installment, this year held in Boston. Notably, the conference was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte, NC in March. GIH pulled out in response to the dust up around North Carolina's less than progressive stance relating to LGBT rights, the restrictions to transgender bathroom access in particular.

The conference's opening plenary speaker Wednesday evening was Judy Belk, President and Chief Executive Officer of the California Wellness Foundation. Judy called on grantmakers to demonstrate courage, a commitment to justice, and a sense of self. Breaking this down, courage is manifest in taking on the uncomfortable or just plain scary. One of the examples she gave was "Dreamers," undocumented youth, taking a public stand in the face of possible deportation. There is justice in your philanthropy to the extent that you ask questions about fairness, access, and respect for all. Finally, don't neglect the "me" or personal self in the work. Are you in the right place emotionally to do your work? Are your passions aligned?

Below, in no particular order, are summaries of other sessions. My colleagues Don and Chuck attended the conference this year for the first time. They have contributed to the following.

  • Thursday opened with a Behavioral Health Funders networking breakfast. It was heartening to see a room filled with grantmakers with agendas similar to our own. Following three rounds of "speed-dating" style networking, seven themes appeared to dominate the conversations: policy, prevention/health promotion, trauma, relationships, technology/technical assistance, and criminal justice reform. Kathryn Power and Dennis Romero, Regional Administrators for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Regions I and II discussed some of the work and interests in their regions. In Region I (New England, basically), they're working a lot on infant and pediatric mental health. Region II (NY, NJ, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands) are focusing on maternal and child health, special needs, and mindfulness. Great stuff! Also, the Scattergood Foundation, Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation, and Kaiser Family Foundation teamed up to produce a series of of reports on various behavioral health issues, which they distributed at the event.
  • Thursday's morning plenary featured Diane Rowland from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation speaking about being uninsured as the critical driver limiting access to healthcare. This theme was picked up again by Ron Pollack from Families USA and inaugural recipient of the Andy Hyman Award for Advocacy, who gave the last address at the conference. He pulled no punches in his assessment of the attack on the Affordable Care Act as the the worst rollback of health benefits in US history. Pollack pointed out that is hard to conceptualize the 23 million Americans that would lose insurance under legislation just drafted by the US House of Representatives. He offered an indelible image: if 23 million Americans held hands they could create a human chain extending between New York City and San Francisco five times. Making no claim to have discovered the issue, Pollack also decried the overwhelming influence of money and special interests in politics. He repeatedly encouraged attendees to read Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. I guess we know where he stands.... Pollack's passion was evident in his remarks, and between his words and his impressive history of advocating for America's most vulnerable populations, it's easy to see why he received the award.
  • A breakout session on Creative Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic focused on the work of the General Electric Foundation and its partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, and the Boston Public Health Commission. The main priority was to increase the substance use disorder (SUD) treatment capacity of behavioral health providers generally. Continue to push integration of SUD and mental health facilities through co-licensing, and promote workforce training centered on the science of addiction treatment and on the de-stigmatizing of people with the disease of addiction. It was very helpful to get a sense of how the partners worked together to support evidence-based treatment in the context of a public health approach to the opioid epidemic. Smaller table discussions focused on prevention, treatment, and stigma. SAMHSA Region I Administrator Kathryn Power participated in one of the stigma discussions, and spoke of the importance of business and industry leaders getting behind the anti-stigma movement. Employers, particularly of businesses where workplace injuries can lead to prescription drug misuse, need to make sure that employee assistance programs offer non-judgmental help and that insurance policies provide easy access to treatment services. Much of the discussion relating to treatment focused on increasing access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), though attendees were quick to point out that there's a lot of resistance to the idea that a person is truly in recovery if they're managing their addiction via methadone or buprenorphine/suboxone.
  • Billed as a session about sustaining integrated behavioral health, the St. David's Foundation of Austin, Texas shared its experience promoting Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) services and highlighted the funder's dilemma of trying to seed innovation while supporting what works. This led the team of partners to develop seven core components of effective IBH. They admitted that this learning grew from early stumbles when they worked without a common definition IBH, didn't bake a learning and adjustment process into the work, and didn't focus on how IBH practices could be sustained. The session spent lots of time outlining the seven IBH principles, leaving only a few scant minutes for a discussion of financial sustainability. I (Don) found this frustrating until I took a step back and looked at sustainability from the broader perspective. I realized that the seven principles were actually the root of true sustainability, as they would embed IBH into daily practice and culture. That needs to be as much a focus as the financial sustainability. (By the way, the St. David's Foundation released a report in 2016 summarizing this work: Best Practices in Integrated Behavioral Health.)
  • A panel spoke about the value of applying a gender-based lens to behavioral health work. Do it to be more inclusive in your perspective, not less so. It helps to be aware that, while women attempt suicide at three times the rate of men, the majority of completed suicides (by a factor of three) are by men. Women are generally more susceptible to developing PTSD than men. Traditional notions of masculinity can actually be a mental health risk factor. Men, and this varies by culture and ethnicity, are poorer health seekers, and are more given to high levels of self-stigma.
  • Wade Crowfoot, CEO of the California-based Water Foundation gave a plenary address on the last day. Flint, Michigan's water woes have been front and center recently, but the speaker made the case that safe drinking water challenges are the norm across the country. Threats to the safety of drinking water disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. The audience asked lots of fascinating follow-up questions about technology's role in ameliorating water shortages (e.g., through improved filtration) and about hydrofracking (an issue that we in Buffalo try not to think about, since 'fracking' money is what drives our major sports teams).
  • A networking breakfast on children and families turned out to be a panel presentation on paid family leave identified positive trends but observed that expanded coverage is really only getting to about 15% of the population. Large corporations use it recruit top talent, but 50% of Americans work for small businesses where the trend is less pronounced.
  • Staff from the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation (Hudson, OH), described their state-wide work to reduce incarceration rates for individuals with mental illness. 30% of Ohio inmates suffer from serious mental illness. In an effort to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals who are booked in the first place, Ohio has become a leader in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for police and other first responders.
  • A Thursday night reception impressed with panoramic views from the 52nd floor of the Prudential Building. I (Nick) particularly enjoyed watching four young peregrine falcons dive-bombing each other.
  • Chuck and I (Don) attended a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations-organized networking breakfast on Friday morning focused on learning together for better results. The session highlighted how funders could do a better job sharing what we've learned. Their is much more upside in learning for improvement instead of learning for proof. Funders can play the role of conveners, facilitators, capacity builders, and participants. In the end, the presentation pointed out that learning does not need to be a huge undertaking. There are some simple steps that we can to create opportunities that optimize our learning goals. I ended up reconnecting with a colleague from Interact for Health who had visited with us four years before to help us understand community-based SUD work. Interact for Health has a robust approach to learning, and I'm looking forward to further discussions in the future. 
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