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Merger of National Council, SAAS to be completed by summer's end

May 22, 2014
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
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The National Council for Behavioral Health and State Associations of Addiction Services (SAAS) will merge by next fall, pending the legal details. The move is expected to be a boon to both organizations, with the National Council acquiring addiction expertise and adding provider members, and SAAS gaining the advocacy and financial leverage of the much larger association of behavioral health providers.

Both of the association's governing boards voted for the merger, with SAAS voting just days before it was announced by National Council CEO Linda Rosenberg earlier this month at the National Council's annual conference.

Asked how the merger benefits SAAS members and addiction treatment providers, Rosenberg was bluntly accurate: “We have more resources and more clout,” she told Addiction Professional. “We’re a stronger voice, together, in Congress and with the administration.”

Rosenberg adds, “This is not to protect providers, because that’s not our vision, but to enable things that we’re learning through science are the right things to do. Everyone is coming to realize that addiction is a public health crisis. You need support that is ongoing; you need to make sure every community has a full range of services.”

The structures of the two associations differ, with the National Council having individual provider members and SAAS made up of state organizations of addiction provider agencies as members. But SAAS CEO Becky Vaughn says there also are similarities, with the National Council having some state associations as members. In those cases, as in the SAAS structure, individual providers pay dues to their state's National Council chapter.

A more obvious difference involves the National Council being more closely aligned with “behavioral” health—the combination of addiction and mental illness—while SAAS has focused solely on addiction.

Changes in states already

In the states, the distinction between mental health and addiction services isn’t so cut-and-dried anymore, says Vaughn. “There are several state associations that are members of the National Council that are very mental-health focused, and other states like Massachusetts and Ohio that have always been focused on both mental health and addiction,” she says.

In Maine, one director heads both of the state's provider associations. California has traditionally been “siloed,” but organizations there are now being forced to come together, gradually. “Some of this comes as a result of the way services are provided,” says Vaughn. In Texas, all public mental health services are provided by community mental health centers, the base membership of the National Council, while addiction treatment providers are represented by the Association of Substance Abuse Programs.

New York, which has a very strong SAAS group in the Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers, is “very supportive” of the merger, Vaughn says.

Vaughn, who has tirelessly traveled the country in recent years trying to convince her member providers to get up to speed with insurance billing, care integration and other issues brought to the forefront by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), knows how states and their providers already have started changing—notwithstanding the possibility of an association merger. “There are all kinds of good things going on,” she says, citing examples such as provider mergers with federally qualified health centers (FQHCs).

Cross-training

Learning about mental health (on the SAAS side) and addiction (on the National Council side) constitutes a key next step, says Vaughn. “We have a lot of cross training to do,” she says. “I have a lot to learn too about mental illness.”

Merging the two associations will enable both to “make better use of resources,” Vaughn says, emphasizing that the costs of running an association offer another reason for joining together.

A merger mentality already seems to be under way in so many forms in the industry, but addiction treatment providers are not the same as mental health treatment providers, and some leaders continue to stress that patients with different conditions need individualized treatment.

Sara Howe, CEO of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (IADDA), one of the strongest SAAS member associations, supports the merger but says addiction needs to retain its own voice.

“As the leading voice for addiction services on the Hill and around the country, SAAS members expect our association to continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of our membership,” says Howe. She emphasizes that the merger is “just the beginning,” adding, “It is incumbent on all of our members to ensure addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support services are strongly represented in every aspect of the work we will do as one association.”

Behind the scenes at SAAS

The SAAS board's vote in favor of the merger with the National Council was 15-2, with 11 members not present for the April 28 conference call, says Vaughn. The executive committee had voted on the Friday before the full board's Monday vote.

“We were working on some of the details right up to the vote,” says Vaughn. “This felt like an 18-month pregnancy and a very long labor.” The merger has been a topic of discussion within SAAS since August 2012.

Already, within SAAS chapters' approximately 1,500 represented provider members, “It’s getting hard to distinguish whether they are addiction or mental health,” or both, says Vaughn.

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