NYHealth Praises Governor Cuomo’s Transfer Policy to Expand Access to Veterans Treatment Courts

Stephany Fong, fong@nyhealthfoundation.org

January 25, 2021, New York, NY – Today, the New York Health Foundation praised Governor Andrew Cuomo’s transfer policy to expand access to Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs), which was included in the State of the State. New York is home to more than 700,000 military veterans, and the ongoing pandemic may increase the risk of poor mental health among this community. Most justice-involved veterans suffer from mental health issues, including PTSD and depression. Ongoing self-isolation and a lack of access to treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate these conditions. Expanding access to VTCs will help veterans get needed mental health services.

The New York Health Foundation also released data on the devastating impact of COVID-19 during a time when access to mental health care services has decreased. In a national survey of post-9/11 veterans and service members who incurred a physical or mental injury or illness while serving, the Wounded Warrior Project found that during the pandemic:

  • 34% of veterans currently suffer from severe or moderately severe depression;
  • 52% reported that their mental health has worsened since socially distancing themselves; and
  • 30% reported having suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks.

For too long, too many veterans have been introduced to a criminal justice system incapable of dealing with their unique circumstances. The latest data show growing mental health needs during the pandemic,” said David Sandman, President and CEO of the New York Health Foundation. “We applaud the Governor for his leadership to expand access to Veterans Treatment Courts throughout New York and look forward to the day that all New York veterans can get the help they need through these lifesaving courts.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than half of all justice-involved veterans have either mental health or substance use disorders. VTCs are a type of problem-solving court, similar to civilian drug courts. They provide an alternative to incarceration for veterans who are charged with low-level offenses and who suffer from mental health or substance use disorders. VTCs give these veterans a second chance by providing them with the treatment they need while allowing them to stay in their communities as they transition to civilian life. To date, VTCs have helped more than 4,500 New York veterans; however, about one-third of New York’s veterans do not have access to these lifesaving courts.

Governor Cuomo’s provision included in the State of the State will enable veterans charged with low-level criminal offenses—excluding domestic violence cases—in counties without a VTC to be transferred to a VTC in an adjacent county. The Governor, in his 2022 Executive Budget, included a provision to ensure statewide access to VTCs to address the unique circumstances and challenges veterans face. This transfer policy ensures all New York veterans across the State have access to these specialized courts.


About the New York Health Foundation
The New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) is a private, statewide foundation dedicated to improving the health of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable. The Foundation is committed to making grants, informing health policy and practice, spreading effective programs to improve the health care system and the health of New Yorkers, serving as a convener of health leaders across the State, and providing technical assistance to its grantees and partners. | https://nyhealthfoundation.org/


Caring for the Frontline

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — now more than 10 months and counting — we’ve rightly been lauding health care workers and other frontline workers as heroes.

New Yorkers have taken to their balconies and porches at 7:00 p.m. to bang out symphonies of appreciation on pots and pans. We’ve hung thank-you signs in our windows and planted them in our front yards. We’ve contributed to programs that deliver meals to frontline workers both to boost their spirits and to support local restaurants. But our health care workers need more than cheers and free lunches during this stressful time.

People from all walks of life are feeling isolated, anxious, and depressed these days. In some ways, we’ve all experienced a collective trauma. Trauma is often the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Research bears this out: surveys consistently show increased symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic compared to the prior year and that large percentages of Americans are experiencing mental health and/or substance use issues.

Health care workers’ levels of stress and trauma during the pandemic are of particular concern. Think back to the spring in New York City: a new virus, without clear treatment protocols. A shortage of personal protective equipment so bad that nurses and doctors were reusing gloves and masks over the course of a full day or even longer, when they should’ve been changed between every patient. A reliance on strangers to donate their hand-sewn cloth masks to extend the life of disposable masks. Not enough staff; not enough beds. The possibility of not having enough ventilators, and having to make impossible decisions about which patients would get them and which wouldn’t. The emotional labor of holding up an iPad so loved ones could say goodbye. Refrigerated trucks lined up outside to hold corpses.

We’ve made progress in fighting the pandemic. Our understanding of the virus and effective treatments has increased. We are better supplied with stockpiles of necessary equipment. Testing is more widely available. Several effective vaccines have emerged.

But more and more health care workers are hitting a wall. They’re exhausted and drained from having battled coronavirus for 10 months and counting. With post-holiday spikes and new, more contagious forms of the virus emerging, the pandemic is far from over and some hospitals are edging closer to being overwhelmed. Going to work each day evokes fear of getting sick themselves or putting family members’ health at risk.

survey of health care workers over the summer found that 86% reported experiencing anxiety and 82% felt emotionally exhausted. The word “unprecedented” is overused these days, but it fits here: nurses, doctors, and other health care workers have been overwhelmed as they care for endless numbers of very sick patients, many of whom they aren’t able to save, sometimes including their own colleagues. In a recent New Yorker article, Bellevue Hospital’s chief medical officer put it this way:

“Our staff had never seen so much death. Normally, a patient dying would be such a big deal, but, when you start having a dozen patients die in a day, you have to get numb to that, or you can’t really cope.”

What can be done to help health care workers cope? A number of programs are underway at hospitals and health care systems throughout New York State. Some of these programs — like NYC Health + Hospitals’ Helping Healers Heal initiative — had been in place for many years, but have been adapted and expanded to meet growing and changing needs during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Physician Affiliate Group of New York, or PAGNY, whose members work in H+H hospitals, health clinics, and correctional health facilities, has expanded its Emotional Supports Program to provide emotional and peer support and mental health first aid to frontline health care workers during the pandemic. It offers resilience and mental health training, outreach, and virtual support groups that also include family programming. Participants have found the program helpful in processing feelings of grief, guilt, and anger and addressing the many challenges that cause stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

In Central New York, Bassett Medical Center is rapidly expanding a program to help prevent clinician burnout during the pandemic and working ultimately to spread it statewide. Recognizing that health care providers are often reluctant to ask for or accept help for their own health needs in a clinical setting, the program focuses on peer-to-peer support networks for physicians, advanced practice clinicians, resident physicians, and nurses.

Other frontline workers also have struggled disproportionately with mental health issues during the pandemic: social service providers, grocery store workers, delivery workers, and public transit workers are all providing essential services without the luxury of working remotely, putting themselves in harm’s way. In New York City, Vibrant Emotional Health is offering support to frontline social service and human service workers through virtual interactive training focused on psychological first aid and self-care to help them cope with high stress and the risk of burnout. The program builds on Vibrant’s Staying in Balance program.

The mental health needs of frontline workers will continue to emerge and evolve over time. When exposed to intense trauma, some people initially go into survival mode. Emotions may be repressed. The focus is all on making it through the day. It’s hard to even conceive of getting to the end of the week, much less making longer term plans. Not every frontline worker needs or is ready right now for mental health supports. However, they very well might be down the road. Having the needed resources in place at the right time is what we owe those who put their lives on the line to care for us. Otherwise, banging on pots and pans to thank our health care workers is just noise.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York Health Foundation
Published in Medium on January 21, 2021