Selling Peer Support Agencies to Flinty Republicans

Peer Support Agencies Fit Republican Values and Save States Money

In 2003 the Peer Support Agencies in New Hampshire faced a 60% budget cut. This is story of how grassroots advocacy restored that funding by showing how our programs save the state money. This story is extremely urgent today as Kansas almost lost funding for their peer support agencies, which are called Consumer Run Organizations, or CRO’s.

Kansas did lose all funding for their statewide network of people in recovery, which coordinates a national recognized advocacy training called the leadership academy, a truma-informed care grant, and the annual recovery conference. This conference held the record for several years as the biggest conference in US history for people in recovery. Kansas’ proud tradition of peer leadership is highly at risk now, and tying our programs in to Republican values as this story does is a great way to keep building effective mental health solutions.

In New Hampshire in 2003 NH Legislature had a Republican majority, but they were more moderate than the governor at the time, Craig Benson, who took office in January 2003.

Craig Benson, NH Governor 2003-2005

Most Republican lawmakers here believed in frugal, efficient, competent government that stayed out of people’s wallets and personal lives.

They wanted people to be empowered and independent, for their own dignity, not just to save money on state human services.

Having data on outcomes for Peer Support Agencies is Essential

The Consumer Council had Medicaid statistics proving that peer support agencies, which are so much cheaper than Community Mental Health Centers (CMHC’s), save the state serious money, in  addition to making members of peer support agencies more independent and empowered.

People active in peer support agencies, who also received medical services in CMHC’s, used fewer units of the most expensive Medicaid services than people who used only CMHC’s:  hospital beds, emergency room visits,  one-on-one visits in the community with their case managers, and hours of psychiatrist visits.

The study, by the Dartmouth Psychratric Research Center, compared what Medicaid calls “high utilizers of services” to other high utilizers.  Wellness Wordworks currently has 4 researchers volunteering with us to help gather data in exchange for research experience and potential publication opportunities.  If you would like to join our team, we would love you to add to our transformation of mental health care.

My role in saving the peer support agencies

Some people up here in New England  still think I saved New Hampshire’s network of peer support agencies in 2003. Actually, the directors and members of the state’s 15 peer support agencies saved the peer support agencies, but it could not have happened without me.

Winners of Poetry for Personal Power at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City.

Winners of Poetry for Personal Power at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City.

Members of peer support agencies persuaded the Republican majority in the state Legislature to reject the 60% budget cut the state mental health bureaucracy had proposed for the 15 peer support agencies.

As chair of the state’s Mental Health Consumer Advocacy Council (called the Consumer Council in shorthand), I was captain of the team fighting for peer support agencies.

A Crippling Blow to Peer Support Agencies

A 60% cut to $1 million for the coming year, for all 15 peer support agencies combined, meant closing half completely, leaving the rest with no money for support and recovery programs, just day care for adults.

The 2011 Kansas Recovery Conference, which will be the last one unless Peer Support agencies can improve their advocacy

The 2011 Kansas Recovery Conference, which will be the last one unless Peer Support agencies can improve their advocacy

Most everyone in the state had seen a conservative austerity trend coming before the 2002 election. The Consumer Council held a 2-day retreat to train members of peer support agencies to be effective legislative advocates (lobbyists).

We thought we would use those skills to support the state mental health budget, but when we saw the actual budget proposal in February, 2003, it contained that crippling cut for  peer support agencies.

So we decided to use what we’d learned at the retreat to oppose the mental health budget, and advocate for the peer support agencies.

Convincing Members of Peer Support Agencies They Could Convince the Legislature

Peer support agencies could count on support from all the Democrats, and we could convince enough Republicans to defeat the budget cut, I believed, if I could first convince the directors and members of the peer support agencies that it was possible.

The directors of the peer support agencies were highly motivated to save their programs, protect their members, and keep their jobs.  But the members had never “fought City Hall” before, and were used to being ignored by policy makers. Without active participation by members all over the state, peer support agencies were doomed.

NH’s Unique State Legislature 

Representatives Hall, the House Chamber, in NH Statehouse

The NH House has 400 members; the state Senate, 24. They all get paid $100 per year and have no personal staffs.  They post their home phone numbers on the Legislature’s website.

Since they can’t be experts on every issue, members get their information from their party leaders, the state bureaucracy, lobbyists, and voters in their  districts, who tell them how a bill will affect them personally.

By far, personal stories from voters in their districts are the input they value most, and hear the least.  Three calls from constituents on an issue is a groundswell, and five is an earthquake, if the calls come from people in the representative’s home district, who can vote for them.  House elections are often decided by less than 100 votes, and big money is not a factor.  In fact, conspicuous spending on a House race, beyond brochures and yard signs, usually backfires.

It was perfect for an organized grassroots lobbying campaign by members of peer support agencies, provided the representatives thought they were being lobbied by interested individuals, not an organized campaign.

They ignore petitions, form letters, and phone messages or post cards that say the same things in the same words, Everyone would have to tell his own story, write his own letter, in his own words, about how peer support agencies improved their independence, self-esteem, sense of self-worth, employability, and social networks.

Peer Support Agencies Become a Grassroots Lobby

Our peer support agencies could save their programs by telling  enough lawmakers their personal stories of how peer support agencies help them, and what losing them would mean.

In their own words, their stories should strike Republican values:  peer support agencies give them more independence from government benefits, and many could truthfully say they got their first jobs in years thanks to a current work history they got first in peer support agencies.  They had become proud taxpayers, not dependent, stigmatized tax consumers.

The directors of the peer support agencies, in every region, made sure their members made the phone calls, wrote the letters, and attended the budget hearing in the Statehouse and the rally outside on the lawn.  No other human service lobby did that in 2003, especially the CMHC’s.

We told our  success stories to the Legislature; CMHC’s, who were competing  with peer support agencies for the same money, sent a paid lobbyist.  (That year, they sent the most exzpensive lobbyist in the state, a former Senate president and the governor’s golf buddy.)  That backfired.  Lawmakers started asking, if CMHC’s are as poor as they say, how can they afford to pay a lobbyist, especially that lobbyist?

Selling Peer Support Agencies Through the Media

I coordinated the media effort, and made the media contacts.  The conservative NH Union-Leader, the state’s largest, most influential, newspaper, ran a story about peer support agencies under the headline “Budget cut will cost the state money.”  The person I talked to there got it.

Two of the state’s three TV stations covered the rally, and the Associated Press sent the story to every newspaper in the state.  The smaller TV station opened its evening news with a member of one of the peer support agencies crying straight into a camera, “They can’t close that center.  They just CAN’T close that center.”

The big, influential station showed a clip of me addressing the members of peer support agencies from Daniel Webster’s statue on the  Statehouse lawn:  “We are NOT the helpless people who were released from asylums 25 years ago. We have a voice, and we will be heard.”

State Mental Health Director Supports Peer Support Agencies

When reporters covering the rally asked Geoffrey Souther for a comment as head of the state mental health authority, Geoff was caught between his governor and his own strong belief in the value of peer support agencies.

“I’m not going to tell you $1 million is enough for 15 peer support agencies,” Mr. Souther told the media.  “Peer support agencies empower people.  This rally proves it.   Nothing like this could have happened five or 10 years ago.”

A few weeks later, the Legislature created a new line in the budget for peer support agencies, with enough money to maintain all 15 locations, and all the peer support agencies’ recovery programs, and staff.

Are you a member of Peer Support Agencies in your hometown? Tell us you get solution based advocacy to your legislators.

1 comment to Selling Peer Support Agencies to Flinty Republicans

  • This are some comments that come in about this blog when I posted in on my Facebook profile:

    Gina Jones, Alaska Mental Health Board (AMHB) (An important advocacy and decision making organization in their state, which is hosting one of the currently running Soteria projects: “Very well said.”

    Jennifer Nugent, Kansas City employment specialist and Poetry for Personal Power staffer: “I would like to see these kinds of efforts in my area. Sometimes it seems like peers are competing with eachother for opportunities instead of working effectively together.”

    Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum, New Hampshire family member of mental health service recipient: “OK that was fascinating to read and in my opinion among your best political/historical articles ever. Highly relevant to current national debates. I espec learned about how you connect the NH Yankee spirit of dignity and individualism to funding peer support. Also what motivates NH legislators (people not money) so they listened to citizens who weighed in. And how YOU helped them find their voices to tell their needs in a political arena not at first comfortable. Woody Allen gave a t-shirt once to his cast and crew, “Just Show Up” but it’s also about “just speak up.” Someone has to listen, though…and your article unpacks why these very conservative NH legislators did listen. Thanks for a great read.”