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Advisory Boards Article

Policy Panel Calls for Advisory Role for Recovering Community

September 26, 2006


Feature Story
By Bob Curley


Deborah Beck, a longtime advocate for addiction treatment, prevention and recovery and president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania (DASPOP), says it seems "odd, and inappropriate on the face of it, to have groups making decisions on the future of a population without having that population at the table." Yet in many states, people in recovery from alcohol and other drug problems have little or no input into the decisions made on their behalf within state government.

Join Together's Blueprint for the States policy panel would like to see that change. As part of its sweeping recommendations for improving state efforts to fight addiction and promote recovery, the panel called for each state to create "a permanent, highly visible state alcohol and drug advisory board, led by civic leaders and individuals in recovery."

"We recommend the creation or strengthening of state advisory boards to prevent the issue from becoming buried below public notice and also as a mechanism that governors can use to help generate public support for policy innovation," the panel said. " ... Key public agency directors and provider groups should be present on the boards, but should not become the dominant members, because a critical role of the advisory board is to expand civic support."

The report said the advisory boards should be empowered to issue regular public reports on state addiction-fighting strategies and results, as well as conducting social-marketing campaigns to increase public support for prevention and treatment. "The goal of the boards should be to provide broad strategic oversight to the whole system of prevention, treatment and recovery and relate these programs to the social and economic future of the entire state," the Blueprint panel said.

The Blueprint panelists explicitly endorsed the role of recovery-advocacy organizations, saying, "We believe that an active and effective recovery group will provide exactly the kind of long-term commitment and involvement that is now missing in many states, and will sustain public support for the recommendations in our report. We urge states to actively support recovery groups."

Real Versus Token Representation

"We really welcome that recommendation as a way to organize the recovery community at the state level," said Pat Taylor, director of the recovery advocacy group Faces and Voices of Recovery. Taylor said her group has informally surveyed its membership nationally to determine how involved local recovery groups have been in state advisory panels. "In some places there's real representation, but in others it's kind of token," she said.

Taylor said that increasing the involvement of the recovering community in state decision-making is part of Faces and Voices' civic-engagement plans; the group is working with state agencies as well as with state lawmakers to enshrine recovery participation in state law, she said.

Some states have been quite progressive in giving the recovery community a role in policy development: in Ohio, for example, the Governor's Council on Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services is chaired by Donna Conley, executive director of Ohio Citizen Advocates for Chemical Dependency Prevention and Treatment, whose mission is described as eliminating "the stigma and discrimination associated with alcohol and other drug addiction by educating the public that alcohol and other drug addiction is a preventable, treatable medical illness, reducing barriers to treatment, and advocating for a system of care that supports a continuum of effective alcohol and other drug services."

In Vermont, Friends of Recovery is part of the governor's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. "We have a very strong voice for the recovery community," said Barbara Cimaglio, Vermont's deputy commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse programs, who also sits on the Friends of Recovery advisory board. "The recovery community is finally getting the point that they have to get involved in policy work."

Cimaglio said recovery advocates add a unique perspective to the table. "They bring the reality of what people are facing in the community and what's needed on the ground to support recovery," she said. "We often focus on treatment, which is episodic ... We need to shift our approach to long-term recovery, and the viewpoint of the recovering community is important in supporting that."

Lonnie Walters, a former Navy man who has been in recovery for 25 years, chairs the Alaska Governor's Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. The board, established when the federal government turned over responsibility for addiction and mental-health services when Alaska won statehood in 1959, has always had participation from the recovering community, said Walters, but its influence has waxed and waned depending upon who occupies the governor's seat.

In addition to Walters, the Alaska advisory board also includes a recovering heroin addict; together, they work to promote the disease concept of addiction to other panel members, Walters said. Despite the strong representation, however, the ability of recovery advocates to influence policy is limited by the governor's willingness to listen. "I have not felt that for the last three years" under the administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski, he said, noting that Alaska's treatment capacity has been slashed and the formerly stand-alone state addiction agency folded into a combined behavioral-health agency. "We've lost funding and clout under the present administration," said Walters.

Walters said the bottom line is that the influence of advisory-panel members in recovery will remain limited unless they are backed by a strong constituency movement. "We need a lot more involvement from the recovery community," he said. "A lot of alcoholics in recovery just go on with their lives; they take the Alcoholics Anonymous traditions [about anonymity] in the wrong way."