Tuesday kicked off a three-day state behavioral health board meeting, held at the Bethel Cultural Center. Kate Burkhart is the Executive Director of the Alaska Mental Health Board and a meeting organizer. KYUK sat down with Burkhart at the Red Basket restaurant to recap the first day after hearing public comment.
KATE BURKHART: It’s a really important time for board members, and that’s why we also do two kinds of public comment: the formal public comment you heard tonight and then the informal public comment around a meal. And that’s because we’ve learned people are more likely to talk to us in a relational environment, especially if there’s food. And so we get some of our best information, and our ideas, and really connect with people that way, so that’s kind of the context of what’s been happening today and will continue to happen tomorrow and Thursday morning.
KYUK: When board members are kind of prompted to advocate for something, what specifically does that mean?
KATE BURKHART: It’s actually not advocating for, it’s advocating with. What that turns into is us working with constituents to speak about the importance for the program and advocate for funding at the state level, but also in this environment that we’re working in now at the federal, at the local community level. And then also to work with communities to understand that the treatment services for addiction or mental illness are health care services, just like health care services for broken bones, and for cancer, and for diabetes, and we really do want the voices we heard tonight to be the loudest voice.
We also want people to feel empowered and people to have the tools they need to advocate at school, at work, with their treatment team, so that if they don’t really like the treatment plan that their provider has presented, that they feel comfortable and can articulate, "Well, I don’t really like that treatment plan. I want a different one. This is what I want." And to really want is to preserve the self-determination and dignity that everyone, whether they have a behavior health condition of a disability or not. So we do work with folks around advocacy at the local level, at IEP meetings for special education, in the health care setting, and then big advocacy in front of a legislative committee or with a senator.
KYUK: A lot of the comments were from people that had gone through treatment, so a lot of it was about addiction issues. What were some things that you took away from that that you think will help with some of your initiatives?
KATE BURKHART: One of the things the boards have prioritized in the overarching reform of the Medicaid health system, both behavioral health and primary care, is access to treatment as close to home as possible. And what you heard tonight from people was having access to effective evidence-based treatment in my home community, or at least my hub community, meant I got treatment. If I had had to go Anchorage, I would have never gotten help.
So, the boards have worked really hard to bring that experience and that knowledge to statewide policy makers, so that as they work through these reforms they understand that we will need to invest in capacity around the state, and that when we do, people benefit. I think that’s one of the big things to take away from tonight is the importance of access to the right level of care as close to home as possible.
KYUK: And what are you looking to getting feedback on and delivering information on tomorrow, and on Thursday?
KATE BURKHART: So, we have two sessions tomorrow that feature folks from Bethel and around the region. One is focused on the opportunities and challenges related to behavioral health and criminal justice here in the region, and we heard a little bit about that today, around alcohol and opioids.
So, we’ll have representatives from law enforcement, the VPSOs, the treatment system, and we will have an opportunity to really learn and have a discussion with them about what’s going on in the region, and what’s working well, and what’s not, and where we can make some improvements. And then we have a session with youth and organizations that serve youth in the region. They’re part of our service population and we want to hear directly from them.