(Chicago) – TASC held its 2015 Leadership Awards Luncheon on December 10, honoring Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and entrepreneur Bill O’Donnell for their advocacy on behalf of people with mental health and substance use disorders.
“Sheriff Dart has called national attention to the injustice of using county jails to house people with mental health conditions,” said TASC President Pam Rodriguez in presenting TASC’s Justice Leadership Award. “He has supported Medicaid enrollment and other activities to ensure continuity of care for people detained at the Cook County Jail.”
To the applause of more than 300 guests at the Westin Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Dart reported that 12,000 people have successfully signed up for insurance at the jail via the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “People who never had insurance now have insurance,” he said. “It is absolutely amazing what this collective work has done.”
Since 2013, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, working with TASC and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, has enabled individuals detained at the jail to apply for health insurance. Prior to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, the vast majority of people entering U.S. jails lacked insurance, hindering their access to treatment for chronic substance use and mental health conditions that often contribute to rearrest.
The prevalence of these conditions in the justice system is not new, Dart observed. “These are issues that have been around for a while. And it’s with partnerships, working with TASC, that we’ve been able to make incredible change.”
TASC Public Voice Award Recipient Bill O’Donnell noted that he might well have gone to jail for his behavior while he was in the throes of addiction. Coming from a family driven to “achieve, achieve, achieve,” O’Donnell was a successful businessman who became addicted to alcohol and cocaine in the 1970s.
“It wasn’t until I got into treatment the second or third time… that I ever asked myself the question, ‘Why is it that I even need the marijuana, the booze, the coke, to change the way I felt?’” O’Donnell recalled. “Recovery and life and awareness is an inside job. You get can get help, you can get direction, you can get love, you can get guidance—but it’s an inside job.”
O’Donnell went on to found Sierra Tucson in 1983, an internationally-recognized treatment center that was among the first to involve family members in the recovery process.
TASC Executive Vice President Peter Palanca praised O’Donnell for his openness and high-profile voice for recovery. “Twenty-three million are in long-term recovery in this country and it’s still the most stigmatized illness,” said Palanca. “Bill was one of the first corporate leaders to speak openly about his addiction. He is a powerful voice for recovery.”
The value of helping one another was highlighted in two videos accompanying speakers’ remarks. Dart introduced a video depicting personal stories of people who now have health insurance thanks to enrollment efforts at the jail, and Rodriguez presented a video featuring participants in Winners’ Circles, which are peer-led recovery support groups for people who have been involved in the justice system.
TASC has been engaged in initiatives at the intersection of health and social justice since 1976, explained TASC Board Chair Cecil Curtwright. “I believe that our highest human calling is to help others—directly, if possible, and if not possible, to support those who do, with whatever means and talents available to us,” said Curtwright, who is the associate vice provost for academic and enrollment services at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Among other dignitaries attending TASC’s event were previous honorees, including Gino DiVito, retired appellate court justice; Melody Heaps, TASC founder and president emeritus; and Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Chairing TASC’s 2015 event committee was John Zielinski, vice president and financial advisor at William Blair, who, along with other volunteers and generous donors, guided TASC’s most successful fundraising campaign to date. Zielinski extended special thanks to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the presenting sponsor of the event, along with numerous other generous sponsors and raffle prize donors.
“TASC is successful because we work together,” said Rodriguez. “Thanks to science and treatment parity, thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the efforts of TASC and our community partners, and especially thanks to all of you, more and more men and women are finding the treatment, the support, and the hope and tenacity needed to build and strengthen those delicate roots into lifetimes of recovery.”