A Win for Health, A Win for New York’s Veterans

Dear Colleague,

Today we celebrate an important victory for health, justice, and New York’s nearly 700,000 veterans. Newly enacted New York State law creates universal access to Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) for all veterans who need one. VTCs are a type of problem-solving court that provide an alternative to incarceration for justice-involved veterans who have mental health and/or substance use disorders. The positive effects of VTCs include reduced recidivism, lower alcohol and drug use, more stable housing, increased opportunities for employment, stabilized relationships with friends and family, and improved mental health. The restoration of veterans’ sense of honor allows them to re-engage with their communities as productive, law-abiding citizens.

New York State is home to approximately 33 Veterans Treatment Courts in 25 counties. However, not every veteran in our State had access to these lifesaving programs. In total, about one-third of New York veterans lacked access to a VTC, leaving them languishing in a justice system not equipped to deal with their unique challenges. Now, that has changed. New statute authorizes the transfer of cases from jurisdictions without VTCs to adjacent counties with VTCs and the establishment of new VTCs. We applaud the Legislature for their leadership—especially Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Galef, who sponsored the issue in their houses—and Governor Cuomo for supporting the bill and signing it into law.

The New York Health Foundation leaned in hard and acted as a changemaker, more than a grantmaker, to contribute to this policy change. Our involvement with VTCs began a decade ago, when we supported an evaluation of the first-in-the-nation VTC in Buffalo, and then supported VTC replication across the State. Our staff studied the issue and laid the groundwork for change with a research brief. We wrote about it and organized convenings. We are especially proud to have supported recent educational and advocacy efforts to make this happen. We built a coalition of allies. We testified. Justice for Vets, an NYHealth grantee, organized a consensus working group to forge agreement on a universal access plan for New York State for a high-quality, high-performing statewide VTC system. We congratulate and thank them and all of the group’s members for their commitment and participation. Global Strategy Group, another NYHealth grantee, conceived and executed a winning issues campaign. And we thank the veterans who advocated for this policy and shared their personal stories of how VTCs have benefited them.

By enacting this sweeping policy change, New York State has honored and affirmed its commitment to the health and wellbeing of its veterans. It’s a proud day for New York.

Forward together!

David Sandman, Ph.D.
President and CEO
New York Health Foundation

One Year Later: How Are You?

It was just about one year ago that COVID-19 arrived in New York. The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 1st, and New York quickly became an epicenter of the pandemic.

Since then, there have been 1.75 million confirmed cases and nearly 50,000 deaths in New York State. Numbers like that are hard to grasp, and behind the numbers are individuals, lives, and families forever changed. And beyond those clinical statistics, there are the human, psychological, and economic tolls. The past year has changed just about everything.

Pre-pandemic, most conversations started with the most casual question, “Hi. How are you?” The response was usually equally formulaic: “I’m fine. Thanks.” But in the past year, the question “How are you?” took on extra weight and meaning and we all knew it. What we were really asking was “Are you healthy? Is your family all right? Have you lost your job or income? Do you have enough food to eat? Are you staying safe? How are you coping with all of this?” And the answers to that seemingly simple question became just as complex. In fact, sometimes people were at a loss for words to describe how they were doing.

As we mark this anniversary of the start of the year that everything changed, I asked my colleagues at the New York Health Foundation to share their experiences and reflections with me. Some themes emerged. Below, they speak in their own voices:

Families Suffered in Their Own Ways

Most days, 2020 brought more challenges than triumph. I lost a good friend recently to the virus after an epic battle, and have countless other friends recovering. My courageous health care worker mother-in-law also battled the virus, which sent her to the ICU over the holidays (thankfully she’s on the mend and recovering well). We saw loss in my husband’s (I feel it important to mention brown) family at a staggering rate last year.

The news in NYC was horrific, and I wanted to hunker down in my home as long as possible. With Mama Bear instinct, I worried about how to keep my college kid safe—get him home or leave him at college? My mother in California had the same fears for me. She’s always hated that I live in New York, and the scenes in the news of crowded hospitals made it much worse.

My mother-in-law cycled in and out of the hospital for months last spring, with symptoms unrelated to COVID. I was grateful for many of the safety measures in place to keep her from contracting COVID during her many hospital stays, but with those strict infection controls came impossible trade-offs. She was alone and afraid at some of the most vulnerable moments of her life; she wasn’t well enough to communicate coherently with the family and it was difficult for us to reach members of her care team by phone. The lack of communication and our inability to advocate effectively for our loved one surely hindered her recovery.

 We Grew Closer, Even if We Were Apart

We developed ways to cope. My mother, brothers, and I started weekly Facetime calls. A long- lost cousin in St. Louis joined us for a guest appearance and enjoyed it so much, she became a weekly regular. Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, we have had these weekly calls that last at least two hours. Kids and pets make occasional appearances in the Family Call. We spend more time with each other than pre-pandemic! I suspect this tradition will continue even after life returns to “normal.”

People have largely been generous and kind: sewing masks for essential workers; supporting local businesses and food banks if they’re able to do so; grocery-shopping for homebound neighbors…I’m heartened by the ways in which communities have lifted each other up during the pandemic.

A Divided Country Harmed Our Health

Inequities are rampant. Persistent disparities have been evident in all aspects of the pandemic (rates of infection, hospitalization, death, vaccination; ancillary effects like food security, job security, mental health, ability to work/learn from home, and so on). These come as no surprise, but the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore or excuse these inequities.

How can we effectively come together as a nation to stem the pandemic when we can’t even agree on a basic set of facts on any aspect of the crisis? The seriousness of COVID-19, the effectiveness of masks and other precautionary measures to slow transmission, choices about reopening schools and businesses, willingness to get the vaccine—all of these issues have been politicized. And we’re so deeply divided that we can’t seem to find common ground or even common facts. This is the aspect of the pandemic that’s made me the most pessimistic about our ability to emerge from this crisis stronger than we were before or to do better when we’re faced with the next pandemic.

In so many ways, we have seen and broken down barriers this year. We’ve forged new partnerships quickly that may not have happened otherwise—with other funders, with community partners, with each other (literally zooming into people’s homes). But, at the same time, the most intractable barriers to good health for everyone are in stark relief: racism, bias, inequities.

Nature Heals and Simple Pleasures Matter

Something that has brought solace is spending time at New York State parks. With so many different locations and kinds of parks to choose from, we were able to find places that weren’t too crowded and where we felt safe to socially distance. It was reassuring and helpful to experience the peaceful sights and sounds of nature, and to breathe in the clean, fresh air at those times when we were the only people around and could pull down our masks. We were able to enjoy each season, marveling at nature’s resiliency and steadfastness even as the human world spun out of control.

I’ve found that the smallest moments of joy can lift my spirits and sustain me for days. Seeing a friend for a hike or an outdoor drink; running into a neighbor while walking the dog; going for a run in the sunshine; even celebrating a family birthday over Zoom.

We chose to stay in NYC, to ride it out and help where we could. We also balanced our choice with more time spent in nature, something that grounds us; we even started to explore [other parts of] New York State like never before.

 Awareness of Privilege and Gratitude Grew

I have never forgotten how incredibly fortunate I’ve been—to have a job, to be able to work from home, to live somewhere that allows me to walk around in nature without crowds. And I’m very grateful my family and I have remained healthy.

2020 was also an absurd gift of sorts. I was able to quietly and intentionally prioritize my time when the world around me felt like swirling chaos. I found ways to refocus, learning that in the silence of my apartment, I’d become more productive than I could have ever envisioned. Having that time to reset in the safety of my own (acknowledging the privilege) home, granted me a clearer mind to really pivot flexibly and optimistically.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be in this position as well as the weight of our responsibility to our partners and communities. And, while I continue to value kindness above many things, this year, I feel indebted to the conviction of so many others who are doing all sorts of work on the ground.

These quotes speak powerfully on their own. One year ago, none of us fully understood what was coming. The past 12 months have changed us, unalterably and maybe in ways we don’t even yet understand. It’s been a year of extremes; combining pain and loss with comfort and strength. And so I ask, meaningfully, “One year later: How are you?” I hope you’ll share in the comments.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York Health Foundation
Published in Medium on March 17, 2021