Is the problem NY’s brain injury leadership, the DOH, or both?

The leadership of New York State’s Brain Injury Association and Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council seems determined not to hold the state’s Department of Health accountable for anything.

Is it only a coincidence that the same people have led and, in some respects, still lead both groups?

For years attorneys Michael Kaplen and Judith Avner led BIANYS and now they head up the council.

Avner was Kaplen’s pick for assistant council chair even though she is still the BIANYS executive director. When the two attorneys led BIANYS, Kaplen was the board president. Moreover, Kaplen was a BIANYS board member at the same time he was the council’s chair. It is worth noting too that BIANYS relies on a sizeable grant from the DOH in order to operate, a reality that makes Avner’s post on the council high-risk for potential conflict of interest and, given his past relationship with BIANYS, Kaplen faces the same risk.

Violating NY Public Officers Law

Conflict of interest did not stop Kaplen or Avner from voting for a trust fund that would have clearly benefitted BIANYS. Never mind that during a September 16, 2010 council meeting they were warned against doing so by ex-officio council member Nick Rose. The trust fund was to benefit brain-injured individuals who did not qualify for the state’s TBI Waiver and BIANYS because, according to council minutes, “the Brain Injury Association of NYS ( was to) be contracted (with) to assist with the development”of the trust fund and, it is said, receive a financial percentage of the fund itself.

Despite the warning, Avner and Kaplen voted for the fund anyway, even though doing so appeared to put both in violation of New York’s Public Officers Law.  The council’s by-laws say council “members shall refrain from voting procedures in instances where a conflict of interest  may exist as defined by the Public Officers Law.”

DOH Getting Carte Blanche

As an earlier blog post points out that in its lifetime the council has never really offered so much as a single proposal to the DOH regarding what can be done to help brain-injured individuals in the state, proposals like these being the very reason they were formed in the first place. Similarly, throughout its years with Avner-Kaplen duo at the helm, BIANYS never publically held the DOH accountable for anything, a pattern that has not changed under the current BIANYS leadership duo of Avner and Marie Cavallo. Cavallo is the BIANYS board president. Another recent blog post outlines some of the issues BIANYS refuses to address publically even though they have been repeatedly asked to by this writer.

The fact of the matter is one would be hard pressed to find a single example of either group holding the DOH publically accountable for its actions, including its recent attempt to throw a 66-year-old woman with a brain injury off the waiver and charge her $24,000 in the process. It is worth noting too that in an article by Rick Karlin in today’s Albany Times Union regarding this injustice there is no mention of BIANYS. BIANYS had plenty of time to release a statement to the media because I told them in plenty of time and asked them in writing to take a public stance; a written request that was ignored by Avner and Cavallo, yet both will tell you with a straight face that BIANYS is an advocacy group.

Is the reluctance to hold the DOH accountable  a matter of morally bankrupt leadership in both groups, the power of the DOH, or a combination of both?

The Bottom Line

Managing life with a brain injury is a formidable enough challenge as it is. It should not be all the more formidable because groups like BIANYS, TBISCC, and the DOH reveal an across the board penchant for lip service steeped in moral bankruptcy. Something needs to be done. Maybe step one is for the leadership of all three to step down.

LETTER TO MY READERS

Dear Reader,

Over the past weeks I have found myself so deeply disheartened at the absence of kindness, fairness, compassion and honesty on the part of my country’s leaders I’ve had a hard time moving the pen across the page. On nearly every front: political, business, religious, the media and more, I see choices driven by greed, dishonesty and a lack of respect for human life. I see New Orleans still in horrifying disarray and our young men and women being killed and maimed overseas. We have a federal government more wedded to political one upsmanship then it is to bringing our young people home and saving some lives – ours and the Iraqis. Any voiced concern for the environment, for the life of Mother Earth is, more often than not, an exercise in lip service. And, of course, the oil companies and the military complex continue tearing every dollar they can from the wallets and purses of a hard working public.

And forget about real regard and respect for law enforcment. In my last blog post I called for an Amber-alert type system to be put in place for law enforcement officers. I even sent it to some elected officials. No response. I sent it to some newspapers like the Albany Times Union and the New York Times. They did not publish it. Why? It was timely. State troopers had again been shot in my state and one was killed in the cross fire?

Despite all the aforementioned, none of us can afford to stay silent. I think it was Dante who said, and I am paraphrasing, The hottest places in hell are saved for those who remain silent in times of trouble. And so I will not, and I hope you will not, stay silent.

There are a few things on my mind now, goals I have, if you will, and I am asking for your help in achieving them.

1) I will soon begin publishing a series of essays on living life with brain damage. As most of you know, I live with brain damage as a result being shot in the head in 1984. Living with a brain injury, or a TBI (traumatic brain injury) is different every day. And given that nearly 2 million Americans suffer brain injuries annually (with more than 50,000 dying from them) and given that many of our veterans are coming home with brain injuries, the more people understand what it is like to live with one, the better equipped everyone will be to provide the deserved support. I am asking you to please make as many people as you can aware of these essays.

2) Given the recent Virginia Tech killings and our culture’s addiction to violence, I am looking to begin a college and high school speaking tour. Those of you who have connections in this area, please let me know. I will be acting as my own agent in this endeavor. I have lived a life that has included a wide range of experiences: being shot, homelessness, getting arrested, time in reform school, suicides of loved ones, loss of family, alcoholism, brain injury and PTSD. I have, as many of you know, given numerous speeches and I think life has placed me in a position to help young people (and adults) make the discovery that they need not be defined or controlled by the challenges they face. That their right to a good life does not deserve to be derailed.

3) Needless to say, I will continue, from time to time, to publish sections from the memoir in-progress and other nuggets.

I am asking all of you to please share this blog with everyone you know. Please ask people to join.

Lastly, from my heart to your heart, thank you for reading this blog. It is my sincere hope that joy, good health, happiness, love and a safe life are your constant companions.

I know what I wanted to say in this letter to you, I only hope I have said it.

Warmth and respect,

Peter S. Kahrmann
Berne, NY