Moving Forward in the New Normal

It’s hard to put words to the array of feelings and experiences we have endured in 2020. Each week seems to add new twists and turns to an already complicated storyline. Looking backward, I am able to reflect with pride on the DBHDD hospital system and provider network. Our collective ability to lean into uncertainty and remain focused on our mission to serve has led to remarkable progress and continuity of care for many vulnerable Georgians. But we have also experienced grief, gaps in service, and longing for the way things used to be. Like me, you may recognize some simple activities and pleasures that we have taken for granted. I have also experienced unexpected joy in stories of acts of compassion, empathy, and courage. It is as if the full human experience has been squeezed into the course of a few months.

The state’s budget process mirrored this sustained intensity. When Governor Kemp signed the final budget on June 30, he recognized challenging times and hard choices that had to be made.  At DBHDD, we felt those difficult choices acutely. As the public safety net for people with mental illness and substance use disorders, and the administrators of the NOW/COMP federal waivers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we know that there are many vital services that Georgians rely upon. Reductions to any of these programs seem difficult to withstand. In addition, our focus on preserving essential services meant that we had to enact a reduction in our own workforce, losing trusted and loyal colleagues who have served our mission.  We know that community providers may lose staff members as well. These departures and losses must be recognized, and will certainly be felt across our network.

In spite of these difficult challenges, there was good news as the legislative session came to a close. With improving revenue forecasts in the state and the benefit of the Rainy Day fund, our budget reduction shifted from 14 percent to 11 percent and finally down to 10 percent.  This allowed several millions of dollars to be placed back into vital areas where state funds are necessary: Addiction and recovery supports, peer services, residential services, clubhouses for youth, and new waiver slots and family supports for I/DD were among those areas that we were able to replenish.  We have many champions in the General Assembly who helped fight this battle with us. As a result, state employees will NOT experience the proposed furloughs. I would like to thank the hardworking staff in the House, Senate, and Governor’s budget offices for their tireless efforts this session. Above all, we are grateful for the vision, leadership, and cooperation of Appropriations Chairmen Terry England and Blake Tillery, OPB Director Kelly Farr, and the leaders in the conference committee who brought this budget to a successful conclusion. We are also thankful for the champions and advocates throughout the state who bolstered our message about the importance of services for people needing behavioral health support and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

So how will we move forward in the weeks ahead? The term “new normal” does not resonate with me, as I am not sure that the times ahead will be “normal.”  There is important work to be done to understand the impact of racial inequity and the impact of isolation for people with disabilities of all kinds. These issues are of great concern to me. I prefer to think of our pathway ahead as a “customized co-existence” with COVID-19. Increasing numbers of positive tests suggest that the spread of this insidious illness will be a burden for the foreseeable future. We will have to adjust repeatedly, at the level of individuals we serve, treatment modalities, and across facilities and service sites. This will require fortitude and grace as we learn to embrace constant change.

Even with these daunting prospects, we know this: We are in this together. Sustainable solutions require collaboration. We are going to have to listen more openly about what’s working and what’s not in hospital and community settings. We have to lift up voices that have not yet been heard to truly be of service. While we await a COVID-19 vaccine, we have to continue to foster hope, which is our only vaccine against uncertainty. We have to believe in our collective ability to emerge with more effective and responsive strategies. I do believe this is possible, and I hope you’ll join us in this mission to ensure that the drive to support recovery and independence remains our guiding vision.