“We need our own mindset change.”
Hearing these words were nothing short of thrilling to GHPC’s CEO Karen Minyard.
The context: Georgia state lawmakers were talking about factors contributing to children’s behavioral health as part of GHPC’s Legislative Health Policy Certificate Program.
The lawmaker’s revelation: The state’s three strikes incarceration approach was having unintended consequences for the mental health and well-being of children in the state.
The patience-pays-off moment: Several years later, Minyard was in her car when the local National Public Radio affiliate announced Georgia was implementing substance use and mental health courts — a policy decision that required administrative, legislative, and judicial agreement.
“The person who had a mindset change in our legislative education session had drafted that legislation and carried it through to make it happen,” recalls Minyard. “We are helping legislators to think about the system — not just the tip of the iceberg, but what are the systems, the policies, the mindsets, the patterns of behavior that are contributing to the problem. This is also an example of the kind of patience that is required. You keep focusing on the system. And then something pops out, sometimes years later, that is just incredible for a lot of people’s lives.”
The First-of-Its-Kind Certificate Program
State legislators make tough health policy and financing decisions regarding access to care, health status, and insurance coverage, which directly impact their constituents. With support from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, GHPC created the first-of-its-kind Legislative Health Policy Certificate Program in 2008 to build systems thinking competencies and health content knowledge among lawmakers and their key staff. The education initiative provides a framework for not only understanding the reasons behind Georgia’s traditionally poor health rankings, but also for changing the way policymakers make decisions about health-related issues.
As in any state’s general assembly, Georgia legislators are expected to know about a lot of issues, but can realistically only become experts in a few policy areas. These areas often relate to their field of study or vocation, or a deep passion that they champion throughout their legislative careers.
“As a physician, the most valuable thing for me personally was having a baseline level of data, because until we understand the data, our assumptions could very well be wrong,” says state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, M.D. (R-District 32), who completed the certificate program in 2017. “It has been really important to me to develop this relationship with the people who could get me data that I needed on any particular health care issue. GHPC is a great resource because in the heat of the session it is easy for me to call up the center and say, I really need their quick take on whatever topic we are voting on.”
To date, 157 legislators and key staff members have attended the Legislative Health Policy Certificate Program, with 101 completing the required four sessions to earn a certificate. Additionally, 62 attendees have progressed to the Advanced Health Policy Institute, with 32 earning commendation for completing the two required sessions.
“Not only do I learn things that can help me out as a legislator, but also as a business owner and personally — the conversational capacity piece and the adaptive leadership piece,” says state Rep. Dexter Sharper (D-District 177), who enrolled in the Advanced Health Policy Institute in 2019. “It takes that conversational capacity to help recognize conflict, and when there is conflict, to say, ‘What am I missing? What are they missing? And what are we both missing?’ With that philosophy, it puts you in a position to listen more, to be quiet, patient, and to be in a position to learn and process things before you say things.”
Reflective of the program’s goals to bring credible, reliable, and unbiased information to policymakers and to develop methods to have productive conversations among lawmakers, attendees represent both political parties nearly equally.
“I understand that if you align yourself with a political party, you lose everybody else. So we have been very steadfast not just in our neutrality, but in focusing on our support of excellence in government,” says Minyard. “To support excellence in government, you meet policymakers where they are, you understand what they are concerned about, and you help them do the best that they can. We value having this trusted relationship where we give every bit of information we have, even if that contradicts current perceptions. It is about providing evidence for excellence, giving them the best of what we have, and then just sitting back.” ●●