Thursday, August 12, 2010

Remembering AMI-NYS in the 1980s and 1990s—Part 2

When we blocked State Street with hospital beds--1991

March 1991—We hatched the idea with great glee. We would get four heavy metal hospital beds, place them side by side across State Street right opposite the Capitol entrance, put four patients in them with pajamas and robes on, and block traffic on the street. On March 5 I drove up to Angelica Laundry in Ballston Spa and picked up several hospital sheets. Someone appropriated the beds. I borrowed blue johnny suits and robes from Ellis Hospital. That night lawyer Van Zwisohn told us how to react when blocking the road next to the Capitol and the mounted police charge us to break it up. He said, go limp—it will cost you $150 in court if you go limp. If you resist it will cost you $250 and you can face jail time. He showed us how to go limp and that was it.

And we did it. The beds were rolled out at the rally and everyone wearing the johnnys and robes scurried to their beds. I thought Carol Saginaw the fastest woman in the world because she flashed by me in an instant, ducking under the banner we held across the street and up to her assigned bed. The cops did break it up some time later. They were grouped on mounted horseback at the intersection ahead of us after Arnold Gould asked them to hold off a few minutes. We pulled the beds back and wrapped up our signs and put the johnnys in a pile. Harvey R gave them out to some of his people after I had promised to return them to the hospital, which left people at Ellis very unhappy.

February 2, 1993—The little jail on the Capitol lawn—in January we were going to follow the beds in the street gambit with something equally brash. We came up with a theme park idea for the winter rally where we would build our own buildings to look like a jail and group home and hospital and put them on the Capital lawn. The jail was the centerpiece, to draw attention to the poor treatment our family members received. Carol had a friend with enough construction skill to lead the effort. We had work parties at the office and in somebody's basement to hammer and saw and put the structures together out of scrap lumber and heavy paper and paint. The theme park took place on the Capitol lawn Feb. 2 with the little group of buildings set just off the steps on the grass, painted with doors and windows and signs on them if I remember correctly. It was quite a triumph.

Early in the '90s the AMI-NYS board meetings were lively and the board members were characters. Two or three people definitely dominated the talk and complained if the president tried to cut them short. Vera H came from NYC and felt strongly that we should press more advocacy. When the OMH commissioner passed the word that Vera was calling him up every day and it had to stop, we politely asked her to back off. She objected, saying she would do the dirty work and we could mop up after.

We didn't always get along so well on the board, coming in from all points around the state, some with our own agendas. At one session, DJ put his boots up on the table we sat around and wouldn't remove them. Jerry Klein raised a point of order to ask DJ to remove his boots, saying it was undignified. He refused. We asked politely, then more firmly—to no avail. We took a vote but this didn't help either. Finally we said we would get a policeman. The boots came off the table and we went on with the meeting. There was another time when the ballots for election of board members were hijacked in NYC and we had to cancel the election. Someone had collected the ballots for others and voted fraudulently.

1995--The AMI boss who slept at his desk gets a phone call

This is Joe Gentile's story. Joe was president of AMI NYS in 1994-and 95. Joe is a no-nonsense guy, a long time labor negotiator, a tanned, beefy man who still plays rounds of golf twice weekly and flies off now and then around the country to do his flings as a labor-law arbitrator. “It's like taking candy from a baby,” says Joe in his gruff voice. “I don't need to do this anymore but they keep calling me up.” I bumped into Joe and his wife, Peg, both Syracusans, in March last year when we drove by along the Gulf Coast. They had their two grown grandsons there. Joe says, “They're out all the time looking for skirts.” Joe doesn't like fool-arounds, nincompoops and malcontents and that's what led to the phone call. Not that our newly hired executive director, Frank A., was any of these but his behavior left him open for a pretty quick body slam, only a month or two into his tour of duty with AMI-NYS

Frank had not long before been hired by our gullible board of directors. His was simply the best of the resumes we had at the time and Frank in the flesh could spin a story around our novice ears with ease. He convinced us he could call up the mayor of NYC, Ed Koch, or the bishop of the Diocese of New York City, or Governor Cuomo himself to get help for our beleagured AMI, desperate for greater recognition. Frank didn't have a clue about running a program whose constituents were families with mental illness, it became apparent. He had to ask us about everything. He had held down a sinecure at the NYC board of education and we never figured for a minute he couldn't do what he said he could.

For a month or so we wondered what Frank was doing. We didn't see things getting done. We began hearing rumors from the state office higher ups that Frank has been saying strange things to them. Joe got wind of it and on more than one of his trips in to the office in Albany he caught Frank head down asleep at his desk. Not good. Joe went off to the annual NAMI conference in Washington, where he picked up the phone and told Frank he was canned. No ceremony here, just move your stuff out and get out. That was all there was to it. You don't usually end these things happily but it happened quick that time. Frank walked out and wasn't heard from for a long time.

Glenn Liebman and the baseball bats—In the early 1990s, Glenn was on the AMI staff with Carol Saginaw and later became our executive director. He conceived of going into the Legislature and handing each of the leaders a toy baseball bat bearing a message written on it in tape, I think, such as “keep the promise” and “save community mental health.” The governor got a bat, too, and they became famous. I think there was a similar awareness campaign inspired by Glenn and aimed at lawmakers another year with miniature basketballs, on a theme of “March madness”, but I can't recall exactly.

Passing out pizza pies for parity—this was Glenn's idea, too, in the mid-'90s. He had a pizza pie with a missing piece delivered to each of the legislative leaders' offices once a week during session. That signified the missing mental health benefits in health insurance coverage. Soon after, Senate leaders issued an edict we couldn't do this because it was bribery and against ethics laws. We pulled back the incriminating pizzas. Not until 2007 did Timothy's Law make the cut, creating parity for mental illness coverage in health plans in NYS. But the struggle to achieve this took 20 years.

On the insurance issue, it was way back in 1987 and 1988 that we met with then deputy insurance superintendent Jim Clyne and allies like Dick Gallo of the Psychiatric Association to urge better mental health benefits. Some insurance plans left out these benefits altogether. A proposed regulation came out that called for 60 days a year in a hospital bed for serious mental illness and 20 days outpatient visits. But during a public comment period, the insurance industry knocked this back to allowing 30 days inpatient and 20 visits outpatient, and those are the benefits that have existed for almost 20 years in most of these plans, until Timothy's Law finally kicked in. That's a 20-year itch. (Roy Neville)

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