AMHCA’s James Finley Takes the Long View on Making Progress With Congress
By Kathleen McCarthy
“The political environment I work in now is the most difficult I’ve ever been in,” says James K. Finley, who since May has been AMHCA’s director of public policy. “It’s a frustrating environment for everyone—I don’t care if you’re on the left or the right. Everyone on the Hill is frustrated by the inability to get much done.”
Though he has worked at AMHCA for less than a year, he was able to hit the ground running because of his expertise in the politics of mental health issues.
His eight years at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as senior lobbyist on behavioral health issues, and his year as a senior policy analyst on President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, comprise just the latest decade of his more than 30 years in mental health and health policy advocacy.
“The issues I worked on at NASW are way more similar than different” to those he works on for AMHCA, Finley says. “Medicare was always a principal focus of mine at NASW, and it’s a principal focus of what I do for AMHCA.”
His years in the field have given him the perspective that, “Victories are slow, and coming slower. You really need that long view to keep a stiff upper lip and see the big picture.”
“My job,” he says, “is to translate what AMHCA needs to Congress,” and provide good policy justification for legislation that AMHCA supports. But “simply having a solid justification doesn’t lead to good law. You have to have the right people in the right place at the right time.”
In Finley’s long view, the challenges of the current political environment cannot be laid solely at the feet of the politicians. “As a political scientist, I’d say it’s because the American people, the electorate, is sending mixed signals to Congress. You had an electorate with a different message in 2008 than you did in 2010.”
With winners of both of those elections still in office, “You have two very different electorates, with very different policies and priorities,” he says. “In the 2012 election, we have the potential for lots of change with another wave election.” Regardless of which way the 2012 election goes though, Finley has to keep his eye on how to meet the goals of AMHCA members beyond 2012.
In the lead-up to the election, there’s no shortage of issues to monitor and press. “We continue to push Medicare, VA, TRICARE, all the professional issues that are on our plate. We still have to push our issues with policy-makers and decision-makers every day.”
One of the most important tasks he has undertaken is to educate members of Congress, particularly freshman members, about mental health issues and what they should understand about the mental health counseling profession. It’s sometimes a daunting task because with the focus on reducing the federal budget, any legislation that has any cost associated with it is not favorably received.
For example, the wave of baby boomers becoming eligible for Medicare is likely to challenge the government’s ability to continue coverage at existing levels. Finley notes that new retirees, who have had access to mental health treatment to a much greater extent than new Medicare beneficiaries did when they entered the program 20 years ago, will want to keep that access. But their demands will be voiced in an environment where there’s no new money to pay for maintaining the current level of benefits with an expanded number of beneficiaries. “That’s a real conflict,” he says.
Finley appreciates that AMHCA members are responsive to his requests to send letters and emails when asked to. The lack of Medicare coverage for clinical mental health counselors is not for lack of AMHCA members’ efforts: “Our problem right now is the climate in Congress,” he says. “Our biggest challenge is to find some kind of support among Republican freshman members, and that’s where we have really struggled.”
At the federal agency level, Finley sites returning veterans as AMHCA’s biggest concern. “PTSD is the signature wound of this war. I hear that every day. We have frightening projections on the number of veterans who will develop PTSD over the coming years.” Finley is particularly focused on gaining support for hiring more mental health counselors to serve vets, military personnel, and their family members.
“I don’t think it’s too strong to say that Congress is alarmed that the VA is too slow in hiring to meet the needs of veterans,” he notes, pointing out that both the Senate and House of Representatives have stepped up their oversight of the VA’s capacity to serve the mental health needs of veterans by holding hearings in December.
“The problems of returning vets is going to stay a big issue. ... It’s very grim to think about. Between Medicare and VA issues, AMHCA has tremendous work to be done,” he notes.
The father of three grown children, Finley and his wife now travel most weekends. When he’s not away, he welcomes hearing from AMHCA members. He has a few simple requests to make of them: “Stay informed. Get to know or be familiar with your members of Congress. Regardless of how disagreeable that might be, it helps to have every member of Congress know what mental health counselors do. That would be job number one. Instill in your member of Congress what you do and how that is valuable to the public, particularly the aged and veterans. That would be enormously beneficial.”
For more information about any aspect of AMHCA’s public policy efforts, contact James Finley at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 703.548.6002, ext. 105.