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Celebrating Passage of Parity

By Johnny Allem

March 12, 2008



                  My name is Johnny Allem and I enjoy long-term recovery from the disease of alcoholism. That specifically means I have not had a drink or drug in 26 years. I am very happy with this outcome. So are my family, neighbors, and the tax payers of the District of Columbia.

                  I have been an active advocate for fresh and science-based policies for addressing addiction in America since 1985 when I was appointed chair of the Mayors Advisory Council on Alcoholism in the District of Columbia. I speak out to demonstrate recovery and advocate so others may enjoy the benefits of recovery as I have.

                  While I have a story of spectacle and bad behavior as is often played up in the media view of this disease, my larger story – like millions of Americans – is one of service, responsibility, joy, and citizenship. I have been a successful businessman in the District, a cabinet member in DC Government, operations director of the District’s mental health system, and president and CEO of a national non-profit organization.

                  I have written, testified, and demonstrated on behalf of addiction recovery and the larger field of behavior health and public health. In a national program known as Recovery Ambassadors, I have taught more than 2500 citizens in recovery how to be citizen advocates.

                  Fourteenth and V Streets, Northwest, in Washington, DC, is today in the heart of a gentrifying and thriving inner city neighborhood. On the northwest corner, however, is the worn and drab building more indicative of the neighborhood’s history since the 1968 riots. Next to a deli on the corner is an unmarked door. The door opens to a narrow and dingy stairway with well-worn treads, stained walls, and the light of one 60-watt bulb.

                  A sign at the top of the stairs welcomes you to a twelve-step clubhouse. From 7 am to nearly midnight, hundreds of District residents climb these steps, walk down the hall to a coffee room, and spend a few moments in fellowship and gratitude for another 24 hours without a drink or a drug. The air is really different inside the club. It is weighted with the kind of gratitude only the dying can appreciate. To express this gratitude, someone several years ago pasted a homemade poster along side the official welcome sign at the top of the stairs. It simply said:

                  “It could have gone the other way.”

                  In 1991, I was the alcoholic in recovery that first walked those stairs, signed a lease, and helped others organize a recovery club on that corner. I cannot describe the gratitude I feel as I meet those who began their recovery journey at 14th and V over the past 17 years.

                  But let me share an even more potent story for me:

                  Last Saturday, my son held a huge party at his home in Fairfax County. It celebrated his daughter’s 14th birthday. This wonderful child, my oldest grandchild, has never seen her grandfather drunk. I am reminded that my grandfather died of this disease much younger than I am today. Her grandfather is alive, healthy, productive to society, and made her favorite home made ice cream for her birthday party.

                  I testify today not just on behalf of the millions of Americans who enjoy recovery as I do. I testify today on behalf of my three grandchildren, and the offspring of alcoholics and addicts everywhere. The science is clear. I know where their genes come from. I work so help will be there for their generation.

                  The science has taught us so much. But no disease in modern America has such a gap between what science teaches us and how we respond to illness. When I began my journey in 1982, I was told that many die without any intervention and most wind up in institutions and jails.

                  It is not any better today. In fact, in the same decade that has seen the most advances in brain science is also the decade in which America built more jail cells per capita than any civilization in history – largely to accommodate crude and inappropriate drug penalty laws.

                  The work of the 1990s has left us a horrible legacy. But it has produced one positive result: Today, American voters favor treatment – not jail – for people suffering with an addiction diagnosis.

                  I am reminded every day that I have choices. I choose to tend to my recovery because I know that “it could have gone the other way.”

                  In America, we have not chosen recovery. Our story is going the wrong way. My grandchildren and your grandchildren will pay for our wrong choices. Those of you who craft policy for government action can make different choices.

                  That is why I and the DC Recovery Community Alliance strongly endorse the three-point platform recommendation of the Whole Health Campaign outlined here today:

  1. Ensure equitable and adequate mental health and addiction treatment coverage in all public and private health care plans.

  2. Support policies that promote individual and family recovery from mental illnesses and addictions as integral to overall health.

  3. Commit to investing in America’s future through prevention, early intervention, and research on mental illnesses and addictions.

                  Together, we can choose to recognize and honor recovery and the millions of citizens who enjoy successful outcomes from addiction disease.

                  We can choose to mainstream responses to addiction and mental illness so early symptoms are recognized and addressed.

                  We can choose to end the no-end, no-win, so-called War on Drugs and stop the expensive, corrosive and even racist jailing of Americans without attention to their primarily addictive conditions and illnesses.

                  We can choose following science to normalize recovery – moving addiction from an epidemic to a manageable health threat.

                  We can choose a healthy America – saving lives, saving money, restoring integrity and meaning to the American dream.

                  Let’s not lose this opportunity to follow science, to follow success, and to follow the good sense of American voters.

                  Let’s go the right way, the healing way, the recovery way.

Thank you.

America’s recovery community has entered a period of unique opportunity. And thanks to fresh thinking, careful preparation, and collaborative action, barriers to recovery are falling.

            Legislation supporting equity in insurance reimbursement has passed both houses of Congress and could soon become law. Medicaid coverage is now available to states to pay for early screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment (SBIRT). And a historic partnership between addiction recovery and mental health interests is advising America’s political leadership on health care reform – preparing for action in the Congress in 2009.

            In its 42nd year of service, the Johnson Institute is an influential force in all these developments, creatively advancing better opportunities for people and families facing difficulties with alcohol and other drugs.

            Passage of the Wellstone Mental Health Insurance Equity Act, named in memory of Minnesota’s late U.S. Senator and major advocate for parity in insurance claim payments, has been credited to the thousands of grass roots advocates who visited, wrote, emailed, and telephoned members of Congress in support of the legislation. More than 6,000 calls were counted from supporters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the day prior to debate and passage of the bill March 5.

            Chief sponsors of the House version of parity, Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN) and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), thanked the coalition of America’s recovery community led by the Faces and Voices of Recovery for this critical support.

            The Johnson Institute, under William Cope Moyers’ leadership in 2001, helped create the Faces and Voices of Recovery. Significant in the nation’s recovery community leadership are the more than 2500 graduates of the 57 (and still going) Recovery Ambassadors Workshops.

            Our reputation for being a safe platform to convey the many organizations with a stake in addiction and recovery has fostered the National Forum that has convened twice a year in Washington, DC, since 1995.

            It was my pleasure to co-host and be a founder of the Whole Health Campaign, the historic collaboration of more than 50 addiction recovery and mental health organizations. WHC is dedicated to reaching every 2008 presidential candidate, members of Congress, and members of each party’s platform committee with this key message:

  1. Ensure equitable and adequate mental health and addiction treatment coverage in all public and private health care plans.

  2. Support policies that promote both individual and family recovery from mental illnesses and addictions as integral to overall health.

  3. Commit to investing in America’s future through prevention, early intervention, and research on mental illnesses and addictions.

This effective mobilization of the recovery community to support policies that improve people’s access to treatment and support in recovery comes as Americans widely support more effective responses to addiction illness. Public opinion surveys report that a large majority of citizens support prevention and treatment of addiction as a health issue. In addition, they reject the practice of jailing people convicted of non-violent crimes who have addiction diagnoses.

The work of the recovery community is far from completed. Discrimination is practiced when symptoms are first perceived, when treatment is indicated, when payment for treatment is required, when people in recovery resume their lives, when families cope with addiction disease.

But these Johnson Institute practices and principles are working:

  • View addiction from the wellness perspective, not the illness perspective. Only people in recovery can demonstrate and recovery happens frequently, families heal, money is saved, life gets better, recovering people give back, and everyone wins!

  • Support policies that work in all phases of illness and wellness: educating everyone, recognizing early behaviors of concern, opening doors to treatment, supporting and honoring recovery, and mobilizing those in long term recovery to claim their citizenship.

  • Seek and implement partnerships and common purpose with all people and organizations to enhance opportunity and practices that promote recovery.

  • Restore and building the addiction treatment and recovery workforce as an effective and valued function of America’s health care system.

  • Value and seek faith practices as legitimate and powerful paths to wellness, whole life, and happiness.

We are blessed with the opportunities of our time. Let us meet them with purpose, preparation, and perseverance. 

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