Public Policy Update

The chance to get first-hand knowledge about how psychology affects the nation is just one of the reasons psychologists have pursued APA congressional and executive branch fellowships since the program began in 1974.

The program, which is administered by APA's Public Policy Office, provides psychologists with an invaluable public policy learning experience and contributes to the more effective use of psychological knowledge in the federal government.

Sparked by a keen interest in public health, Tamara Jackson, PhD, the William A. Bailey AIDS Policy Congressional Fellow, came to the fellowship from the eating disorders program at Yale University's department of psychiatry. She has spent her year as a legislative assistant in the office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whom she chose for his commitment to health issues, particularly in obesity and chronic disease prevention.

She has worked on legislation, introduced in June, that provides funding to states, cities and schools to set up healthier environments, and specifically focuses on improved nutrition and physical activity.

"It's exciting to work at the legislative and policy end, and see how ideas and visions are translated into research and community-based programs similar to those that I have been involved with," she says.

Rick Ostrander, EdD, became an APA fellow hoping to make an impact on public policy, particularly as it affects the disabled and poor, he says. In his fellowship, he works as a legislative assistant for Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) on such issues as mental health parity and special education.

Ostrander's birds-eye view of the mental health parity issue has shown him that too many people believe that expanding insurance coverage would increase costs. "But research suggests that if you broaden [coverage] for individuals with psychiatric disorders, you actually save money," since it encourages people to seek services before the disorder becomes less manageable, he says. Ostrander says he would like to see data and research better determine and inform decisions.

In his fellowship, clinical psychologist David O'Neil Washington, PhD, is working with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Washington briefs the senator on such issues as mental health, substance abuse, children's health and medical privacy.

He is confident that his psychology background has given him an edge when it comes to interacting with mental health providers on such issues as mental health parity. "I can talk to them as a scientist and practitioner, rather than as a legislative assistant," he says.

Before he came to the nation's capital, Richard McKeon, PhD, the Catherine Acuff Congressional Fellow, worked for years in the community mental health system in New Jersey, including serving as the director of psychiatric emergency services, where he learned that health policies on federal and state levels were having a significant effect on the mental health system. He decided he wanted to help shape mental health policy to be more responsive to patients and their mental health providers.

His fellowship in the office of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) allows him to develop and analyze legislative proposals, write speeches and prepare briefings on a range of health-care topics. His primary work has been developing domestic violence legislation, although, when other staff departed, he covered the entire health-care portfolio for the senator.

APA Science Policy Fellow Stephen Drigotas, PhD, in the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), spends most of his energies shepherding program announcements through to publication. He drums up support for research through coalition-building--bringing people of specific scientific areas on board to make sure initiatives are being funded across NIH institutes.

The job allows him to work with a variety of institutes and centers to gain "a broad perspective on NIH--how the institutes function generally, how they clash and how to work on a final document that everyone's going to be happy with," he says.

M. Eileen Cronin, PhD, is APA's Practice Directorate Health Policy Fellow in the associate director's Office of Organization and Financing in the Center for Mental Health Services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

She has been immersed in Medicaid mental health services. Among her accomplishments, Cronin is coordinating a Medicaid "best practices" conference for 200 leaders in the mental health field from all the states, including mental health commissioners, Medicaid directors, researchers and policy-makers. She is also writing papers about prescription drug utilization under Medicaid.

Cronin has come to realize that analyzing policy "is critical to the future of psychology," she says. "If we as psychologists are not instrumental in the development of policies that affect the financing and delivery of services, then we will simply be working within an infrastructure set up by politicians and business people."