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APRIL 08, 2013

NCCBH Visionary Leadership Award Application Heather Gates President and CEO CHR

Who are you? What is your story? How did you get to where you are today?

Heather Gates is a proven leader, innovator and advocate in the mental health and addictions field.  She’s spent the last 20 years building an organization that is known for high quality customer service, proven outcomes and a philosophy of hope and optimism for addressing even the most challenging situations.  She has spearheaded CHR’s growth from a $2.9M organization covering only a few towns in the North Central part of CT, to a $42M organization providing a full continuum of services that now reaches half of the state.  However, she is best known for her ability to advocate for and create systems change for those served by mental health and addiction treatment providers.

Heathers resolve to change the system of behavioral healthcare grew out of her early experiences at the state hospitals in Massachusetts.  She was appalled at the way people with mental illnesses were treated in institutional settings and immediately committed her career to changing the model.  She believed that every individual deserved the right to live in the community.  After considering her career options, including law and social work, she determined that the best fit for her to create lasting change in systems design would be through management.  She went on to get an MBA from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, utilizing that expertise to bring a fresh perspective to creating efficiencies, providing effective services and looking at quality in the human service field.  She is motivated by her commitment to individuals with behavioral health needs and her drive towards excellence and innovation.

Heather’s early experiences working as a legal advocate are always prominent in her decision-making about how to best served clients at CHR and how to structure services in her role as an advocate.  She engaged in statewide advocacy early in her career as a Board member and leader of the CT Community Providers Association (CCPA), Advanced Behavioral Health, the CT Association of Mental Health Clinics for Children, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health and later as the Chair of the CCPA Public Policy Committee, the Behavioral Health Partnership Oversight Council, Co-Chair of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) Advisory Committee, the DMHAS Mental Health Policy Council and the DCF Alcohol and Drug Policy Council, among many others.  In these roles, Heather uses her vision of community-based services and her drive for efficiency and effectiveness to promote systems improvements statewide.  She is highly respected in Connecticut as a passionate and articulate advocate.  Heather’s colleagues, state policy makers, CHR staff and board members and most importantly consumers would consider Heather as an innovative leader who is well-deserving of this recognition. What challenges have you faced to get where you are today? How did you overcome those challenges? Did you have a specific turning point? (If so, please describe). Who or what helped you to achieve success? What are your goals for the future?

Heather has a tremendous ability to think strategically and the fundamental belief that nothing is impossible.  She drives her staff and colleagues to take on challenging situations and adopt her positive “never give up” attitude.  Heather recognizes that in her efforts to improve access to and quality of behavioral healthcare, she’s encountered some challenges along the way.  She says that “you don’t always know what you don’t know.”  Sometimes in an effort to meet your goals, you encounter obstacles along the way.  She commented that she’s sometimes underestimated how hard it is to get to those goals. Heather has always faced challenges with persistence, dedication and determination.  She doesn’t get dragged down by negative attitudes and instead focusing on her vision and the bigger picture.  She navigates challenging political situations with ease by always focusing on those who we served.  A great example of this positive attitude is recent work as the Co-Chair of the Connecticut Community Providers Association Public Policy Committee.  The Association determined that, despite incredibly difficult economic times, it would request a seven percent cost of living adjustment from state government in the 2013-2014 biennial budget.  As the spokesperson for the Policy Committee, Heather has faced criticism from reporters and many raised eyebrows from policy makers.  They challenge the reasoning behind a seven percent request when they are looking at deep cuts throughout the budget.  Though this criticism would be hard for most of us to endure, Heather artfully justifies the request time and time again.  She thoughtfully describes the history of underfunding, the economic costs of underfunding the system and the business case for supporting the safety net.  While many of her colleagues are happy to let others lead the charge, Heather steps to the front to make the case for the industry and respond to challenges.  She often says that you should not be standing with those who are in power but with those who need help.  In all of her advocacy work she focuses on what would be best for clients.  She uses that as motivation for her unwavering focus on supporting community based services.

Heather views her experiences at the state hospital as the greatest turning point in her career.  Soon after graduating from Hampshire College, she worked as a legal advocate representing individuals’ rights within institutions as part of the Brewster V. Dukakis Consent Decree.  The suit was a landmark case, mandating the development of community-based services and ultimately the closure of Northampton State Hospital.  It was that work, and her witnessing an extreme level of human suffering, that lead her to dedicate her career to promoting community based services.  She was determined to develop systems that supported people with mental illness in the most respectful and positive ways in the community.  This experience, coupled with her internal drive, has led to her success.  She continues to focus that leadership role on creating a system that maximizes efficiencies so that resources may be used where they are needed most in the community.

How have your accomplishments and activities influenced others and/or impacted your community?

Heather makes an impact in any community she touches.  Her visionary leadership has had a tremendous influence on the Community Health Resources system and on the broader behavioral health network throughout Connecticut.  Her leadership has heightened the visibility of associations, forums and advocacy groups in which she’s participated, improved public perception of community providers and helped to decrease stigma. When she began working at what was then North Central Counseling Services in 1993, the agency had a $2.9 M budget and provided only adult mental health services to the town of Enfield and the communities immediately surrounding it.  Nineteen years later, after several mergers and new business development, CHR now serves over 11,000 individuals a year and our services cover half of the state of Connecticut.  Heather has been highly focused on growing our service system so that people may have help where and when they need it most.  One of CHR’s strategic goals is to offer the full continuum of behavioral health services for children, adults and families in each of our clinic sites.  We are well on our way with services for adults, children and families now offered in Enfield, Manchester, Bloomfield and Mansfield.  She also emphasizes that offices be welcoming, professional, attractive and positive environments for all clients.  Everyone deserves to be treated in a nice office building, regardless of his/her ability to pay for those services.  Heather’s emphasis on access and quality is paramount to the CHR culture and has helped changed public perception of behavioral healthcare in our service areas.

Heather is well-known and respected by external groups including the media, the legislature and executive branch officials.  She’s often the spokesperson representing community providers in public hearings or on statewide news shows.  She was recognized by the Community Providers Association as the recipient of their Government Relations Award in 2006.  She is a founding member of Advanced Behavioral Health, a provider-sponsored managed care company, formed in 1994.  She is one of the most vocal and respected members of the CT Behavioral Health Partnership Oversight Council, leading workgroups on both children and adult services at various times.  In that role she’s challenged proposed rate setting, most notably in the Intensive In-Home Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services (IICAPS).  She led a project to use data to influence the rate-setting model.  In addition to these roles, Heather has been active in the DMHAS Mental Health Policy Council, DCF’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Council, the Governor’s Mental Health Cabinet, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health, the DMHAS Advisory Committee and several other policy/advocacy forums.  In each of these roles, and in all other aspects of her work, Heather goes far beyond being a member.  She is a true leader, motivated others to promote change on behalf of individuals with behavioral health needs.

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