National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Sheila Amdur has been nominated by NAMI Connecticut. View the nomination letter from NAMI Connecticut. (pdf, opens in new window)
Each board candidate was asked to answer several questions relating to NAMI and the experience they bring to the board. Each candidate was limited to 300 words for each answer. Read Sheila's answers below:
Why do I want to serve on the NAMI National Board of Directors?
I became active in NAMI-CT after a career as a mental health administrator, and as the Director of Managed Care for the Connecticut state mental health department. I served as NAMI-CT's president and the chair of the national State Presidents' Council, and continue as NAMI-CT's public policy chair. I have spent my career trying to improve treatment and support for people with serious mental illnesses and their families, and I want to continue this work with the organization that I believe has the most effective and relevant voice on mental illness
We are in difficult times. National priorities have moved away from health, affordable housing, and human services. I believe NAMI needs to strengthen its outreach to potential partners on specific issues. We do work on the national level with many mental health advocacy and professional groups, but we also need to think of "non-traditional" partners. For example, businesses and unions both have concerns about employees who may have mental health problems, including those in their families. Businesses are concerned about loss of productivity, and unions are concerned about adequate health insurance for their members and their families. We might not agree on all issues, but we can forge common ground on areas like research, public insurance programs to cover longer term treatment, educational programs that promote understanding, self-help, and mutual support. And we must develop "tool kits" and training packages that help local Affiliates and state organizations expand their own partnerships with groups in their states. NAMI's Campaign for the Mind of America is extraordinarily exciting, and has begun to address many of these issues.
I believe that my skills in coalition building and public policy can contribute to strengthening and expanding NAMI as the "nation’s voice on mental illness."
What financial management or fund raising expertise would I bring to the Board?
I have had extensive experience as the chief executive officer of both small and large mental health agencies. In the early part of my career, I specialized in helping organizations in crisis reorganize and regain fiscal solvency. I then went on to be the CEO of Connecticut’s largest non-profit community mental health center, and increased the budget from $4 million to $9 million in five years, and significantly expanded its capital assets and fundraising initiatives.
As a volunteer, I also helped my religious community establish an Endowment Fund, whose investments I continue to oversee. I have also served as the President of non-profit housing development corporations, the United Way, and most importantly, of NAMI-CT. During my three years as NAMI-CT's President, the budget more than doubled in size, and the organization has developed a very healthy fund balance. I have been an active part of NAMI-CT's Walkathon, and have personally secured most of the corporate sponsors.
As a member of the NAMI National board, I believe my skills will contribute to the Board’s responsibility for fiscal soundness and integrity of NAMI’s operations.
What is the most pressing public policy issue facing NAMI members today? What course of action do you suggest?
The preservation of Medicaid as a viable health insurance for the poor is being threatened. The uncertainties of the Medicare prescription drug program will transfer all persons with serious mental illnesses who are on Medicaid and Medicare to the Medicare Part D program for their prescription drug coverage. Other people on Medicaid, but not on Medicare, will continue to receive their medications through the Medicaid program.
People with serious mental illnesses are threatened in two areas by the pressure to cap or sharply reduce Medicaid spending. The first is that most state services that are critical for treatment and support are Medicaid optional services, meaning that states are not required to provide these services. Secondly, the most expensive drugs and those that consume close to 50% or more of Medicaid costs are psychiatric medications, particularly the atypical anti-psychotics. In Connecticut, we have fought back attempts to limit access to atypical anti-psychotic medications, and are now fighting to assure continued access to medications that are not on the Medicare plan formularies after the Medicare Part D program goes into effect. What we all face across the country is fighting the stigma associated with mental illness, and constantly engaging legislators and the public in understanding the need for treatment and support.
There will be changes to the Medicaid program, but the way we can help prevent the most onerous changes is to strengthen our advocacy at the state level. Governors, regardless of political affiliation, will band together to resist major changes to Medicaid, if they know their own constituencies are behind them. We must help NAMI state organizations and Affiliates throughout the country increase their knowledge and their advocacy to make sure our voice is one of those most heard.
What brought me to NAMI—and what is most valuable to me about my participation in the NAMI movement?
I become actively involved with NAMI-CT, after spending many years as a mental health administrator. When I was asked to serve on the NAMI-CT board and then as the Board president, I recognized that NAMI-CT could become an even stronger and more effective voice for children and adults with serious mental illnesses and their families. Connecticut in the 1990’s, the wealthiest state in the nation, during an unprecedented time of economic expansion, had allowed its mental health system to deteriorate, and I knew that NAMI-CT could help change that scenario.
For many people in the mental health professions, there are personal reasons, not as apparent as for those who must struggle in their daily lives struggle with the challenges of mental illness, for why we devote a lifetime working for this cause. I think now that I went into the mental health field looking for other answers, which I did not find until I became active in NAMI. My father was subject to violent rages, which were not predictable, and did not abate until he was 60 and had a major stroke. What I now recognize is that he had a major depression, and that four of his five siblings also struggled throughout their lives, some not successfully, with depression. Interacting with other families and with people in recovery from mental illnesses gave me an entirely new perspective about my own family and an understanding that has been very meaningful. It also helped me to understand how important it is for families and people with mental illnesses to educate providers about these illnesses and their experiences. Connecticut has one of the most successful Provider Education Programs in the nation, and it was one of my top priorities during my presidency to establish this program.
What is the most pressing internal or organizational issue facing NAMI today? What course of action do I suggest?
I believe that the National organization must continue to work on expanding and diversifying its funding base, and also work to help states do the same. The NAMIWalks have been very successful across the nation, and there may be other fundraising approaches that could mutually be done by the states and national NAMI.
National NAMI must also look more widely to foundations, to corporations that have more enlightened practices in their own health insurance plans, to legacy and endowment development, and to other means for strengthening the underlying financial health of NAMI. The efforts to strengthen NAMI’s fund development have increased, but the organization has suffered two fiscal crises in the last five years. In addition to the Board’s increasing its financial oversight, we must also increase the organization’s long term financial underpinnings. One of the places to start might be to seek help from a supportive foundation to bring in external expertise in the development of a strategic plan specifically related to fundraising and fund development. This consultation should also include an evaluation of the resources and management of fundraising and fund development within NAMI.