Feature

Monitor staff

Psychology's voice in the nation's legislatures has gotten louder. In addition to Rep. Ted Strickland, PhD (D­Ohio), and Brian Baird, PhD (D­Wash.), who regained their seats in the U.S. House of Represen- tatives (see January Monitor), APA has counted at least 11 psychologist-legislators--eight incumbents and three newly elected--serving on the state level.

What does psychology's strengthened presence on the political front mean for the field? "Psychologist-legislators bring insight and their background to an important role," APA Assistant Executive Director of State Advocacy, Michael Sullivan, PhD, explains.

Particularly, Sullivan trusts that psychologist-legislators will apply their unique perspectives to health issues. "The more health-care professionals we have in elected office, the more we improve U.S. health care. I am delighted and look forward to great things from them," he says.

From influencing mental health parity and education reform to endorsing new technology, the following are some of the psychologists working to leave a unique mark on state government.

As Ruth Balser, PhD, begins her second term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, she anticipates delving even deeper into the trenches of health care, education and environmental reform.

As soon as she joined the legislature in 1999, Balser sought membership on the insurance committee seeking to affect mental health parity. "It was a challenge," says the self-described liberal. "The previous term had ended on a stalemate, and when I came in I was determined to move parity forward."

Balser says she and her colleagues devised a political compromise because the bill was "stuck between a liberal Senate, committed to a comprehensive parity bill, and the more conservative House leadership."

This state-level gridlock, she observes, is "why we need the national parity law."

Nevertheless, Balser is pleased with the consensus she helped forge. "We got true parity for a list of biologically based disorders and for children. For other disorders, the benefit of eight sessions was expanded to twenty-four."

This year, Balser has already met with managed-care companies and predicts the augmented coverage for Massachusetts citizens will be "impressive and have a positive impact."

Her other recent victories include participating in the passage of a patients' bill of rights for Massachusetts and her sponsorship of three bills to help psychologists:

  • The "confidentiality bill," which the governor signed into law in December. It stipulates that doctoral trainees, in addition to psychologists, do not have to testify against their clients.

  • The "timely payments bill," a mandate that insurers pay providers within 45 days.

  • The "cultural competency and linguistically appropriate language bill," which requires HMOs to provide patients with culture and language-appropriate services.

Balser worked closely with fellow psychologists to draft these bills. "I definitely bring my background to work," she says.

And in doing so, Balser sometimes finds herself defending her profession. During her first term, Balser witnessed "clear cases of politicians ignoring psychologists' testimonies" on various issues. One such debate on learning disabilities resulted in a defeat for Balser, who voted against the whole state budget rather than accept lower special education standards. In that legislative battle, Balser says, the House leadership attacked psychologists for evaluating special-needs children for their own financial benefit.

It is not surprising that Balser works with her state psychological association to fight this faulty political assumption. "Being a psychologist shapes my public policy perspective," she concedes. But she stands firm in her belief that "we have a lot to offer, our understanding can be very valuable to public debate."

Phil Barnhart, PhD is the newly elected Democratic state representative for south Eugene and Goshen, Oregon, home to the University of Oregon as well as the state's best high schools. It thus follows that educational issues are paramount to his constituents.

Barnhart, who served on the Eugene School Board since 1994, knows his dedication to quality schools "is why I won the election" by 70 percent of the vote. He is also a lawyer and ran a clinical psychology practice for 16 years.

During his term, he plans to advocate for increasing school district funding by 15 percent, which would counteract what he calls the "potentially catastrophic effects" of Oregon's tax cuts during the 1990s. Barnhart's observation that "Oregon has tried to do too many things with too few dollars" inspires his public service.

"Public health, safety and education budgets are 25 to 50 percent smaller than they should be to do the job," he explains. "The long-term solution is to have Oregonians understand that they are starving the state government for funds for state services which all residents use." Barnhart's knowledge of human development will prove an important asset to planning state programs. "We are in a transition from when most parenting was done at home," he says. "Now most families need two incomes. The institutions that were set up for the agricultural and industrial periods provide no way for caring for children, especially those at risk."

The establishment of social services, especially for children, is "a totally obvious issue to psychologists where I can be an advocate," says Barnhart, who feels early childhood issues pertain to health care as well as education. "The primary issue is prevention," he asserts. Barnhart also ran on a platform of state health-care coverage and a patient's bill of rights.

Although he must quickly garner a new set of skills and live up to his constituents' expectations, Barnhart's outlook is wholeheartedly optimistic.

"As a psychologist I am trained to look at things from a different point of view," he comments. Indeed, Barnhart anticipates his open mind will be a great asset in the legislature, where "today's enemy may be tomorrow's friend."

Want to lose 20 pounds and get a great tan?

"Run for office," says Jay Blanchard, PhD. During his campaign for the Arizona Senate, the professor of educational psychology visited about 20,000 homes. "That's two months worth of walking," he says, "and not for the faint of heart."

Blanchard admits that not every door he knocked on opened warmly--he ran in a hotly contested, highly publicized race against the Speaker of the House in a district with a Republican majority of two to one. He says he ran hard to offer people a choice. "On many of the issues, there was enough difference among voters that at least I had a chance."

Education is a particular concern Blanchard shares with his constituents. He wants to allot more resources for K­12 education, classroom salaries and building maintenance.

"We have been remiss in the last few years for funding education," Blanchard explains.

Just days into his first term in office, he already recognized that the roles of senator and psychologist are similar. "I have at least 20 constituent calls a day, and they all have stories," he says. Blanchard likens these interactions to "20 mini-sessions in which you try to be an active listener, find a way to connect and let them know you will try to help."

Blanchard feels well prepared for his senatorial duties because being an educational psychologist has given him the tendency to trade in inquiry, he says. "I don't take things at face value, but rather take an investigative stance towards legislation and arguments presented."

In addition to his stalwart "demand of proof," Blanchard's active listening skills, honed from evaluating the stories of patients and students, will help him judge the merits of countless arguments on the Senate floor. And when it comes time to tell his own story, Blanchard will thrive.

"Psychologists generally have the ability to present our opinions and arguments to others in a persuasive manner," he explains. "We are able to leverage thought because we essentially study thought."

Last year, Judy Ann Buffmire, PhD, won the fight she had been waging since she was first elected to office in 1992--securing mental health parity. Thanks to Buffmire and the consumers, health-care providers and citizens she worked with, Utah implemented mental health parity last year.

"It's a good bill, a great start, and it really was worth the battle," she exults.

She has also sponsored far-sighted legislation promoting psychology in Utah, including the Psychologist Licensing Act. She is equally vigilant on women's health issues. "I've carried a bill to allow OB-GYN's to be primary-care physicians for women and a bill legalizing breast feeding in public."

Buffmire's grounding in psychology has undoubtedly facilitated her legislative success. "Training to listen, evaluate and then send my message has helped me and those I'm trying to persuade to be more accepting of differences we have," she explains.

Buffmire takes a nonpartisan approach to "legislating for the good of individuals and our country." She believes this principle equally guides her peers, regardless of party affiliation or political stance. "We have a great group of legislators," she says. "It is an honor as well as a life-consuming job to serve with them."

Maintaining a balance between acting effectively as a legislator and remaining true to personal beliefs is a challenge Buffmire recognizes. "One of the conflicts I perceive in the national and state legislatures is the ever-pressing need to balance budgets, keep constituents happy with your votes and positions, and to keep your authenticity with yourself and your values," she explains. "It's a hard act to juggle these priorities and survive politically."

Despite her eight years of political storm-weathering, Buffmire remains incredulous that "caring for those that can't care for themselves often takes a back seat to business needs and individual responsibility," she comments.

Buffmire's solution? Encourage more psychologists--individuals with the professional ability to solve problems with non-judgmental, logical, and caring evaluations--to join her ranks.

"We need this balance," she says. "We need this caring and insight."

"Politics is great!" says Jeff Hatch-Miller, EdD; the sincerity weighting his words could inspire anyone to run for office.

Hatch-Miller has just begun his second term in the Arizona House. Running for state representative was a result of "the course of events in my life," he recalls. "I became increasingly involved in community issues, and as a natural consequence entered politics." Years of serving as a Republican party representative for his precinct led to volunteering in the 1996 national elections, and when there was an opening in the legislature in 1998, Hatch-Miller was encouraged to run.

Now a key player in the system, Hatch-Miller says the greatest challenge he faces is "allocating revenues for the multitudes of programs people would like to see established." Hatch-Miller has made substantial strides to launch Arizona to the forefront of innovation, "helping set up a paradigm to deal with the economic growth and technology of the 21st century," he explains. "I performed research and held discussions that got people thinking and forming legislation." As chair of the Internet Study Committee, Hatch-Miller was chief author of a report, "Positioning Arizona to Achieve Maximum Benefit from the Information Economy," which the legislature selected "Publication of the Year." His work continues this year as Chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology committees.

This is just one instance in which Hatch-Miller's knack for understanding and resolving different perspectives--in effect the skills of a psychologist--has helped him build a team around a common political goal.

"A background in the scientific method, rational thought, and how people think can really make a difference," says Hatch-Miller. He longs to solve the toughest problems, and makes no legislative decision without assessing, even reassessing, each and every fact.

As for the gridlock and conflicts of interest that come along with a seat in the legislature, Hatch-Miller remains unfazed.

"You find power struggles anywhere," he points out, "from the university to group practice, there is always a blending of personalities. But our founding fathers set up a system of government where people can come together and make things work. I'm honored to be part of it."

The same personal qualities that inspired Alan Lowenthal, PhD, to earn his doctorate in the 1960s attracted him to public service in 1998.

"While I miss the university setting and the intellectual challenge of psychology," says the former California State psychology professor, "my training, experience and values as a community psychologist make a good match between my past and current lives," he says.

Although Lowenthal has only just begun his second two-year term in the assembly, he has always been involved in politics, first as a community psychologist and activist and later as a Long Beach city councilman. For six years, Lowenthal worked to augment the quality of life in the neighborhood he still calls home; the municipal campaign reform act he authored is considered one of the most comprehensive in the United States.

Despite the heat of California politics, Lowenthal stays cool and still makes community needs a priority. During his first term, he chaired the Housing and Community Development committee, which gave him the stature to pursue one of his proudest accomplishments--"creating a comprehensive, affordable housing package for the state."

Lowenthal also forged legislative success in environmental protection and education initiatives, especially "air and water quality improvements and in increasing resources for public education," he notes.

Lowenthal also advocated for in-state economic growth, protection of seniors and gun control. Health-care reform was equally paramount, and he stood behind initiatives to require health plans to provide second opinions, establish an independent review process and ensure insurance coverage for cancer screening, diabetes and mental illness.

As a psychologist, he relies upon his "problem-solving, consensus-building and listening skills" to make a special impact on government. So too, he only "makes decisions based on empirical evidence" and credits his "strong respect for diversity" to his professional training.

As she starts her 10th year in the Georgia House of Representatives, Louise McBee, PhD, heaps a range of issues on her legislative plate in the hopes of brightening horizons for her constituency. Yet when it comes to her own future, the 75-year-old Democrat says, "I take it one day at a time."

McBee's impressive track record foreshadows success on whatever path she treads. Not only is she a legislator but a scholar--a retired University of Georgia professor and administrator, author or co-author of four books and various articles, and a Fulbright Fellow. And she has brought the educational concerns of her former colleagues to the attention of her cohorts in the legislature. In gratitude for her service, both as legislator and educator, the University of Georgia named a lectureship in her honor.

Her most landmark legislation to date has been a bill to assist educators in the retirement process. Passed in 1998, the law gave members of the Teacher Retirement System credit toward retirement for unused sick leave, a law that "rewards the many dedicated university system employees and public school teachers who work hard and stay on the job for many years," she says. It's fitting, then, that among McBee's many House appointments, the former educator is vice chair of both the Retirement and the University System committees.

McBee also helped draft legislation mandating criminal record checks of child-care workers and is currently serving on the governor's Proclamation Study Committee on Children and Families. And it comes as no surprise that health issues, particularly those related to psychology, appear on McBee's list of legislative priorities. In a gesture of faith in psychologists, McBee co-authored a bill that would grant them authority to prescribe certain drugs. She also co-sponsored legislation providing funds for a breast and prostate cancer research program.

Notable among McBee's efforts to eradicate insurance discrimination of any kind are co-sponsored bills establishing penalties for insurance fraud against persons over 60, requiring coverage for chlamydia screening and authorizing health-plan purchasing cooperatives.

Assistant Minority Whip Dale Miller has served in the Ohio House since 1997, but his public service career began 20 years before as a personal response to the urban turmoil and political infighting he observed in his hometown of Cleveland.

In 1979, Miller ran for the Cleveland City Council and won. "I felt that I could offer some leadership and try to work with everybody," he explains. His career as a psychologist at a community mental health center introduced him to a surfeit of social problems and inspired him to become a change agent. He went from solving local disparities to ultimately representing the interests of his entire state.

Certainly, Miller has not forgotten the lessons learned at city hall; he cites legislation to help Cleveland "get back on its feet financially after the city went into default in the 1970s" as one of his most fulfilling accomplishments. He is also proud of the work he has done in the State House to extend the Homestead Exemption, a property tax reduction for senior citizens.

Miller calls himself an active crusader for mental health reform. He is currently pushing for mental health parity, although he laments that, despite bipartisan support, it failed to get the approval of key leaders in the last session and did not pass. Optimistic and dogged, he will co-sponsor the bill again in the legislature's new session.

Miller and his allies have commissioned "extensive studies indicating that mental health parity would likely save money by treating mental illness earlier and more effectively," he says. He looks forward to the day when a majority joins him in seeing its urgency and practicality.

When Pennsylvania Senator Tim Murphy, PhD, ran his first campaign four years ago, he found his major strength to be his active role in health care.

"My background has been helpful," says the author of the Pennsylvania patients' bill of rights. "When people testify about a health-related topic, I can comment and say I have been there. My colleagues rely on my experience."

Murphy serves as Pennsylvania's representative to the Northeast states in meetings on prescription drug issues and carries a full slate of five committees. His appointments include chair of the Committee on Aging and Youth and vice chair of the Committee on Welfare. He enjoys the excitement of "being in the midst of things and shaping policy, especially for prevention and early education."

Murphy cites his experience working with children as vital to his understanding of education issues. In particular, he scrutinizes assessment methods and research on school standards with expert eyes. "Everyone remembers their introductory psychology class when we learned to think about reliability and validity," he says. Such critical analysis "helps with public policy."

Among his other accomplishments, Murphy recently completed a book, "The Angry Child," to be published this spring, in which he suggests that teaching children to manage their anger will help abate the eruption of school violence. "My colleagues writing bills for youth problems cannot legislate troubles away without treatment," he says. "Instead of mandating," Murphy prefers to "teach people from my pulpit of being a senator-psychologist."

The first appointment Murphy made after being sworn in was with his state psychological association, as he finds psychology's perspective on a variety of issues--from insurance to the workplace--invaluable to making informed decisions. "I encourage psychologists to get to know elected officials on a first name basis. What a powerful voice we can have if we speak together about what we can do for families and education. We need to take the same medicine we give patients," Murphy urges fellow psychologists. "Speak out and build relationships!"

Gloria Romero, PhD, stands at the forefront of protecting patients' rights in California. She authored the Medi-Cal Fraud Bill, legislation that provides the state regulatory authority to fight the epidemic of fraud in the Medi-Cal health insurance system--a problem that costs California taxpayers more than $1 billion annually. The bill, says Romero, "provides state agencies with the necessary tools to ensure that taxpayers' money is going to those in need."

Romero, an appointee to the Commission on the status of women, uses her psychology background to pinpoint the roots of community violence and rectify the damage it has wrought. In particular, her efforts to provide victims of domestic violence not only hope, but the means to a better life have received bipartisan applause. She authored legislation reducing red-tape fees and delays in the procurement of restraining orders because "domestic violence victims have suffered enough," she says. "Victims should not have to pay huge costs or wait weeks to get the paperwork needed for a protective order."

She hopes her crusade "removes these barriers that help perpetuate the cycle of violence for many crime victims."

Romero has also led the fight against the notorious Proposition 187 which, despite a federal court ruling on its unconstitutionality after its passage in 1994, remains controversial. Proposition 187 would have made undocumented immigrants ineligible for public education, nonemergency public health services, and social programs such as mental health services and rape-crisis intervention. Romero's voice has been among the loudest lobbying Gov. Gray Davis (D) to dismiss the case, which was recently sent to a federal appeals court.

"I understand this is a very emotional issue for all interested parties," she says. "As such, I stand ready to assist the governor in resolving this important matter as soon as possible."

Whether writing legislation or voicing her views, Romero consistently places her political weight behind nurturing her constituency's mental and physical welfare. Romero's community, for their part, truly appears to trust their interests to her capabilities.

"Without friends like Dr. Romero in our corner to help us out when we are in the most need, programs like this cannot be realized," said Tammy Membreno, executive director of the Barrio Action Youth & Family Center. Romero presented this important alternative education center with a $250,000 check to refurbish their roof in September. Her concern for both the physical and mental welfare of youth is evident when she comments, "after school activities keep children safe and off the streets."


Democrat Joyce Beatty, PhD, is also beginning her first term in the Ohio House of Representatives. Beatty, who was unavailable to contribute to this article, will serve as the Ranking Minority Leader of Health and Family Services, as well as on the Ways and Means and Financial Institutions committees.