How could it happen?

After reading a recent blog piece about a New York State brain injury council being in total disarray a friend of mine asked, “How could it happen?”

Good question.

How could a council, formed by an act of a state legislature, drift so glaringly far from its mandated purpose? The New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Council (TBISCC) is, “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law…mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.” Yet, as readers of this blog already know, nothing has happened.

There are two people claiming to be chair and vice-chair who aren’t. If the council were to abide by its by-laws, one of the two hasn’t been a member of the council for more than nine years.

What is it that leads people to turn a blind eye, remain silent, including other council members, when others blatantly break the rules? That, and what leads those who break the rules to do so knowing their actions will damage the lives of people with disabilities, in this case New Yorkers with brain injuries? It is not a coincidence that several of the current vacancies on the council are meant for people with brain injuries, yet the agenda for the upcoming December 10 meeting doesn’t mention this.

Back to, how could this happen?

When my friend first asked the question the first thing that came to mind was Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Sit in on a few meetings with Michael Kaplen ( he still insists he is the council’s chair) and you’ll quickly learn he is a bully. I’ve been in meetings with him as participant and observer and witnessed him yelling at people and threatening people. Judith Avner, whose term on the council has been over for more than nine years yet still claims to be the council’s vice-chair, is another kettle of fish entirely. She charms, cajoles, and, were there awards for lip-service skill, would win gold or silver every time.

Having said all this, Avner and Kaplen are not hard to understand. Both strike me as being rather weak and insecure people who, by inflicting their will on others are able to feel some sense of control in life and some sense of, well, power. But what’s the cost? New Yorkers with brain injuries and their loved ones suffer as a result. The fact Kaplen and Avner, both attorneys, know their behavior leaves New Yorkers with brain injuries in the lurch reveals a lack of character.

The real question is, what empowers the enablers? The New York State Department of Health knows full well the council is a mess. Thus far it has said and done nothing. In fact, it sends high-ranking staff to council meetings and answers some council questions.  Perhaps one reason for the lack of DOH oversight can gleaned by  considering a July 5, 2011 blog post: “Minutes from a September 9, 2003 meeting say the council drafted a letter to then DOH official Betty Rice expressing the council’s dissatisfaction “with not being allowed to review (TBI Waiver Manual’s) revisions.”  This underscores what has been an ongoing pattern with the DOH for years; they are not interested in outside input. An ineffective council is to its liking.

But why the silence from other council members? Why the silence from members of the NY State Legislature? What are people afraid of, if, in fact, it is fear that gets in their way?

Perhaps, if council members, and others, listened to and heeded the advice of two heroes of mine (and many others) things might take a turn for the better.

  • Elie Wiesel: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “Our lives begin to end the day we become  silent about things that matter.”

This writer did send an email along with information about the council to Dr. Nirav Shah, the New York State Commissioner for the Department of Health.

NY State Brain Injury Council in complete disarray

At first glance, the agenda for the December 10 meeting of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council  seems perfectly reasonable, unless, of course, you think the TBISCC should be abiding by its own by-laws and by the mandate it was given when it was  formed in 1994 by an act of the New York State Legislature.

A July 5, 2011 post in this blog accurately observes that “it doesn’t much matter (to the council) that “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law, the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council is mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.”” After all, as this blog previously reported , “more than 10 years of TBISCC meeting minutes tell us the council” has “failed to come up with any real comprehensive proposals for the DOH”at all.

Ignoring its own by-laws

Apparently ignoring the  council’s own by-laws doesn’t seem to matter either. It certainly doesn’t matter to attorneys Michael Kaplen and Judith Avner whose two-year terms as council chair and vice-chair expired long ago. The term lengths are clearly outlined in the by-laws.

To underscore the glaring disregard for the by-laws and everything the council stands for, both Kaplen’s and Avner’s terms as council members had expired eight and nine years ago respectively: Avner’s on Aug. 9, 2003, Kaplen’s on Feb. 12, 2004 (Kaplen managed recently to get himself reappointed although his current term ends in February 2013). The expiration of their terms didn’t stop either one of them from taking part in council meetings or laying claim to being the council’s leaders. It also didn’t inspire council members to stand up and say something. The fact the state’s department of health has, to date, done nothing about this, may  reflect a desire on their part part to keep the council as ineffective as possible. It is somewhat troubling to note that a DOH deputy commissioner is scheduled to report to the council on December 10, a move that can be seen as DOH support for keeping the council dysfunctional and ineffective.

To make matters worse, a recent document released by the state’s department of health, says Ms. Avner’s term on the council remains expired. One wonders if the number of council meeting cancellations this year has not, to some degree, been to give the likes of Kaplen and Avner time to get themselves reappointed. If so, it would mean that the needs of New Yorkers with brain injuries were once again being set aside for personal gain. If it is announced at the December 10 meeting that Avner has been reappointed, the preceding speculation may well have its roots in fact.

Disrespecting  NY State Legislature – among others

The fact Kaplen and Avner have been allowed to remain at the helm by their fellow council members and by the state’s department of health reflects an astonishing lack of accountability, glaring disrespect for New Yorkers with brain injuries, and, not at all incidentally, disrespect for the very state legislature that should be commended for forming the council in the first place.

Yet, a read of the agenda for the upcoming meeting reflects business as usual. Kaplen and Avner at the helm, surrounded by council members who have, so far, remained silent. They need to stop being silent and speak up. There was a time when this writer, who has long believed Kaplen simply needs to get out and then keep on going, believed Avner needed to remain on board. This has changed. Avner, who is and should not be the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of NY State (BIANYS),  needs to get out as well. Let’s not forget that, as reported last year in this blog, she voted on a measure that had a direct bearing on the BIANYS despite being warned during the meeting that her vote was a violation of the state’s public officer’s law and thus the council’s by-laws.

Knowledge gone to waste

And then there is this observation. Over the years, quite a few groups have presented valuable information to the council, including, but not limited to, OVR (Office of Vocational Rehabilitation), NYS Education Department, Office of Mental Heal, NYS Crime Victims Board, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, OMRDD (now OPWDD), Office of Advocates for People with Disabilities, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, NYS Division of Veterans Affairs, Unity House, NYS Coalition on Domestic Violence, and so on.  But then, nothing happens with the information! It is not shared with New Yorkers with brain injuries, it is not shared with providers, nothing. So what is the point? To inflate the egos of those who sit at the head of the table like pseudo-royalty?

Time to stand up

To those council members who truly do care, let me say that you need to stand up to anyone and anything that gets in the way of what the council was designed to be and do in the first place. I know facing Kaplen’s bully tactics and Avner’s talent for saccharin lip-service is not easy. It can even be scary for some, and I get that. But consider this, consider what those you are there to help have faced. Here is a glimpse of just few.

  • A young man in Cortland who suffered his brain injury in a car accident and, in that accident, witnessed two of his friends being decapitated.
  • A young woman so savagely beaten and raped she was left for dead.
  • A woman who went into labor joyous at the thought she was going to have a child and suffered a stroke.
  • A veteran in his early 20s who sustained his brain injury from an explosive device in Iraq.
  • A woman who, while in her early twenties, suffered a car accident and remained in a coma for more than six months. When she came out of the coma she learned her brother, who had been sitting next to her in the car had died.
  • A woman who was a teacher and on one lovely winter’s evening went for a walk with her husband. They were pulling their two children behind them on a Flexible Flyer sled. Suddenly a snowmobile driven by a  man who was drunk hit all of them. The husband escaped injury. The woman suffered a brain injury and deals daily with the challenges of being a quadriplegic. Worst of all, she will tell you, is dealing with the wrenching fact that both her children died in the accident.

So, yes, I know it can be scary. But stand up. Stand up for these folks, for yourselves, for the right every person with a brain injury (or any disability) has to be treated as equals, and to be afforded every conceivable opportunity to regain their maximum level of independence, which includes – always includes –  their right to respect and dignity.

Share your concerns

Concerned citizens can voice their concerns to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo here and, just as important, to the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities  here.

Proposal for NY State Brain Injury Waiver: Elephant #2: NYS Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council: the Challenge & Remedy

The Challenge

Formed in 1994 by an act of the New York State Legislature, The 19-member NY State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council is “charged with recommending to the (NY State) department (of health) long-range objectives, goals and priorities”  for New Yorkers with brain injuries. The record shows it has done this. This is not to say there have not and are not council members who, if afforded the  chance to work with effective leadership, who care.

The problem with the TBISCC rests on two primary fronts. It’s leadership and the ongoing presence of blatant conflict of interest linked to some council members.

First, the leadership. Over its history the council has had two chairs: Charles Wolf, the former head of the Long Island Head Injury Association who left that post in disgrace, and, Michael Kaplen, an attorney whose practice focuses on landing people with brain injuries as clients and is the past president of the Brain Injury Association of NY State. Kaplen was a BIANYS board member during some of his time time as the council’s chair. Judith Avner, the executive director BIANYS has been co-chair for each, and therein lies the tip of the conflict of interest iceberg. BIANYS gets a large grant from the DOH.

A review of council minutes from its inception 18 years ago reveals not one single proposal designed to assist the department of health in developing and improving the state’s Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Waiver, established in 1995. Moreover, the fact that anyone from BIANYS or anyone who works for a waiver provider is on the council as a voting member wouldn’t pass the sniff test of even the most poorly written code of ethics. Moreover the council’s by-laws say: “Members shall refrain from participating in voting procedures where a potential conflict of interest may exist as defined under the Public Officers Law.” 

This has not stopped council members from blatantly engaging from conflict of interest even when they were warned not to. According to council’s own minutes for a September 16, 2010 council meeting  ex-officio council member Nick Rose warned Ms. Avner not to violate the Public Officers Law by voting on a proposed trust fund that would be raised from a surcharge on state vehicle registrations because “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, Mr. Avner and voted for the fund anyway, even though doing was clearly a conflict of interest according to the New York’s Public Officers Law.

BIANYS has a history of hands-off when it comes to the DOH. As a BIANYS member and a former board member it has been made clear to BIANYS staff, by Ms. Avner, that they are not to tamper with DOH related issues, i.e., the waiver. Is just a coincidence that the council offered to constructive proposal to the DOH regarding the waiver?

Left unaddressed,  blatant conflict of interest or the perception of conflict interest undermines the ability of this or any council to do the work it is called upon to do.

The fact BIANYS has voting members on the TBISCC is particularly disturbing. I doubt it is a coincidence that both groups, BIANYS and the TBISCC, were stone silent when New Yorkers with brain injuries were and still are going through some tough times. Neither group said anything when the DOH decided waiver providers could not support waiver participants at Medicaid Fair Hearings. Neither made an iota of effort to make sure waiver participants were informed of the results of complaints they filed. It was only last year that the DOH, to its credit, changed this policy. The point is, BIANYS members have had a role in the TBISCC and, more specifically, the TBISCC’s leadership virtually from the council’s beginning. As noted earlier, Ms. Avner was co-chair under both council chairs and Mr. Kaplen is past BIANYS president.

Does anyone with any degree of common sense in their possession think it is merely a coincidence that neither BIANYS or council says word one to the DOH about the waiver?

It is also worth noting that, until this blog exposed it, Ms. Avner’s and Mr. Kaplen’s terms on the council had expired eight and seven years ago respectfully. Apparently, Mr. Kaplen has been reappointed by a, one would hope, misinformed Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver. I am not sure about Ms. Avner’s status. I am sure there terms as chair and co-chair ended a long time ago.

The bottom line is this. The TBISCC can be a positive and constructive force in the lives of New Yorkers with brain injuries. Mr. Kaplen should remove himself from the council. Barring that, he should certainly refrain from seeking the chair or co-chair position. Mr. Kaplen’s history strongly indicates that unless he can be the center of attention, his participation in council activities will rapidly decline. And,  his behavior reflects an individual who has no business being on a council like this. His disdain for individuals with brain injuries and, on more than one occasion, his colleagues on the council ought to send him packing.  I remember attending a council meeting some time ago when Mr. Kaplen responded to a series of utterly reasonable questions posed to him by Mary Ann Anglin, the DOH Director of the Division of Home & Community Based Care Services, with a level of nasty defensiveness that ought to have embarrassed him and, it must be said, did nothing to ruffle or intimidate Ms. Anglin.

In must be said too that under Mr. Kaplen’s leadership, council committees have all but ceased to exist, and executive sessions, rarely, if ever, happen. Mr. Kaplen’s rather self-absorbed dictatorial streak has run both off the road, and, as co-chair, Ms. Avner has either supported this or been ineffective in doing anything about it.

Kaplen should go. I’ve heard first hand reports of how he has yelled at people in person and on the phone, sometimes leaving them in tears, and, as this blog reported, I was present at a BIANYS board meeting when he threatened everyone to embarrass everyone at the table.

However, Ms. Avner and the presence of BIANYS, whose presence on the council needs tweaking,  should not be sent packing.


The Remedy

The relationship between the TBISCC and the DOH does not have to be adversarial. The TBISCC is there to recommend “to the (NY State) department (of health) long-range objectives, goals and priorities” for New Yorkers with brain injuries. Then do so!

The DOH has plenty on its plate as it is. One would think it would appreciate a sincere effort by the council to develop and propose objectives, goals and priorities. Everyone with any semblance of knowledge about the state’s TBI Waiver has known for years the lack of training in the brain is a real problem, yet the TBISCC has done nothing? Not a single idea presented? Waiver providers throughout the state have made it clear – and made it clear to the TBISCC – that the requirements for billing for services and other rules are not uniform throughout the state. There is one set of rules in one region, another set of rules in another. The council has offered nothing.

The problems with the  council are not because it is absent members – voting and non-voting – who care. It is, in my view, because the only two council chairs, Messrs.’ Kaplen and Wolf were all about Messrs.’ Kaplen and Wolf, and because of the blatant areas of conflict of interest just described.

Several things must happen in order for the TBISCC to be effective. If they do, the TBISCC can be a truly healthy influence on the lives of New Yorkers with brain injuries and a well-deserved support for the state’s DOH.

1) All areas of conflict of interest must be immediately addressed and remedied. No member of BIANYS and no one working for a TBI Waiver Program should be voting members of the council. However, both BIANYS and the providers, represented, for example, by the Providers Alliance and other such groups, should, like various state agencies, OASAS (Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services) and the CQC (Commission on the Quality of Care for People with Disabilities) to name two, should have a seat at the table as non-voting members. Advocacy groups should be at the table as well. All have important and relevant knowledge to share.

2) Even if only symbolic in nature, the council should vote to uphold its own by-laws.

3) The council would be well-served to consider itself a working committee and discuss matters at hand during their meetings rather than have each meeting as a platform for presentation from outside groups who are not relevant to what is going on with, for example, the TBI Waiver.

4) The council would be wise to begin its own blog – free of cost at – and use that format to announce meetings, publish proposals, and report on the response to those proposals.

5) The council would be wise to invite neuropsychologists and neurologists and physiatrists, not to mention people with brain injuries and their friends and families,  to get there input so council proposals would be better informed.

6) Last, and not least, and perhaps most obvious, the council is lacking in members who have brain injuries and family members who have people in their families with brain injuries.


Please distribute to all interested parties


Next: Elephant #3 Lack of effective oversight of  TBI Waiver

Brain-Injured NYers outrank Michael Kaplen’s hissy fits

The New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council this month responded to the news that the lives and homes of brain-injured New Yorkers are in danger because of the state’s Department of Health by immediately adjourning their meeting.

No council member said a word when they were told  a federal judge protected the life of a brain-injured senior by blocking the DOH’s attempt to end her services and collect $24,000 in back housing subsidy from her.  No council member said a word when told that the DOH has been conducting a statewide campaign  to either end or slash services and housing subsidies to brain-injured New Yorkers, even though doing so puts people’s lives and homes at risk. No council member said a word when told that brain-injured New Yorkers who file complaints related to the TBI Waiver are never given the results by the DOH. Not surprisingly, this writer received written notice from the DOH yesterday denying my Freedom of Information Law request to see the results of the complaints I’ve filed. No council member said a word when they heard that the DOH has yet to provide them (or anyone for that matter) with a written policy to memorialize the verbal directive blocking waiver providers from advocating for their clients at Medicaid Fair Hearings, an action that also puts brain-injured New Yorkers at risk.

Instead, the council, at the behest of its perpetually self-absorbed chair Michael Kaplen, adjourned the meeting.

Now, do I actually think that no council members care about the issues raised above? No, I don’t think that at all. In fact some do care and care very much. Then why their silence? I think to some extent the answer rests in the understandable reluctance to deal with Kaplen’s outbursts of temper, his hissy fits.

Kaplen reminds me of the kid in the schoolyard who always throws a hissy fit when he can’t have his way. I was in a Brain Injury Association of NY State (BIANYS) board meeting once when Kaplen, angered that some in the meeting did not agree with him that a board member should remain on the board even though he didn’t attend meetings, proceeded to raise his voice, wag his finger, and threaten to  go around the table and embarrass everyone in the room. It will surprise no one to learn I verbally stepped into him telling him  he was out of line threatening people simply because they didn’t agree with him. People were so upset by his behavior that the meeting took a break and one board member, a brain-injured survivor like myself, was so upset she was trembling.

Kaplen is known for his hissy fits.

This TBISCC meeting was no different. Council member Barry Dain, as good and decent a person as there is in the field of brain injury, found himself dealing with a Kaplen hissy fit when he shared an issue that had surfaced with some providers about perceived inequities in surveys conducted by the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General (OMIG). Kaplen appeared to be trying to shut Dain down by venting his anger and frustration with the state’s Provider’s Alliance – a group of 40 to 50 TBI Waiver Providers – when, as Dain patiently explained, he was not representing the Provider’s Alliance.

In the council meeting prior to this one, Kaplen got himself worked up into a hissy fit when two council members, Dain and Bill Combes, advocated for the right of a brain-injured New Yorker in attendance to speak before the end of the meeting. In a moment best described as an equal mix of comical and, quite frankly, pitiful, Kaplen accused his two colleagues of trying to stir the pot.

It is not surprising that the council’s assistant chair, Judith Avner,  did not seek in either instance to rein Kaplen in, after all they’ve been at the head of the table for years, both on the council and BIANYS, and that is part of the problem. Avner is the executive director of BIANYS, Kaplen its past president.

If brain-injured New Yorkers are going to be given the priority they deserve by groups like the council, members of these groups must step up and stomp out those who seek to control them by throwing hissy fits. Council members cannot afford to cower or respond in silence to Kaplen’s hissy fits. Hissy fits are like any behavior, as long as they get the person’s desired outcome, they won’t stop. 

When groups like the council are told the lives and homes of brain-injured New Yorkers are at risk, they can’t respond by adjourning the meeting because they are afraid of someone’s hissy fits. Whatever challenge one has to face  internally in order deal with a hissy fit pales in comparison to the challenges being faced right now by too many brain-injured New Yorkers because of the DOH.

End the Kaplen-Avner Show

It will surprise no one to learn that New York State’s Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council and  Brain Injury Association (I am almost repeating myself) are ignoring requests to look into the bogus complaint line for the TBI Waiver and investigate a state Department of Health’s directive blocking waiver providers from advocating for their clients at Medicaid Fair Hearings. It is sadly not surprising that the requests had to be made in the first place.

As readers of this blog will recall, the DOH never tells complainants the outcomes of their complaints. BIANYS, under the leadership of Judith Avner and, historically, of Michael Kaplen, entered into a contract with the DOH to answer complaint line calls knowing full well complainants are never given the results.

As long as council and BIANYS leadership are not held accountable by their members and, in the case of BIANYS, the board of directors, nothing will change, and the lives of brain-injured individuals in the state will continue to suffer for it.

Why are the requests being ignored? Because, if one agrees that actions speak louder than words, the leadership of the council and  the brain injury association (again I am almost repeating myself) don’t really care.  In fact, a July 5 publication in this blog reveals that the TBISCC has failed miserably to live up to its purpose which is, in short, to provide proposals to the DOH to best serve brain injury survivors in the state.  The only thing that falls into the category of a proposal is a proposed trust for brain injury survivors in the state that would also benefit the brain injury association.  Avner displayed some of her true colors by voting for the trust fund anyway even though doing so clearly violated the public officer’s law which council bylaws require members to follow.

Council chair Michael Kaplen’s penchant for self-aggrandizement  and adding cases to his legal coffers is well known. I remember a yearly best-practice brain injury conference hosted by the state’s Department of Health (they were around 2003 or 2004 when some of us noticed that Kaplen had deposited business cards from his law firm on every table in the conference; at the time he was president of the state’s brain injury association and then and now Judith Avner was the association’s executive director. A few of us went around the room and removed them.

Avner, on the other hand, is dazzlingly skilled at lip service. I’ve walked away from meetings with her thinking brain injury survivors are lucky she is around only to realize (at greater speed as the years have passed) that she didn’t commit to a thing, didn’t agree to a thing, and, above all, made sure BIANYS did nothing that even remotely held the DOH accountable.

One would like to think Avner and Kaplen would, in their heart of hearts, feel guilty for repeatedly letting brain-injured individuals down; but feelings like this require a conscience, something both  seem to be running short on.

As a friend of mine said recently, there needs to be a grassroots uprising in order to address the Kaplen-Avner show and, let us not forget the non-responsive Maribeth Gnozzio of DOH Fame. Perhaps it might be interesting to conduct non-violent protests at the homes of all three. It’s been too long since protests like this have surfaced in Chappaqua, Delmar and Tannersville.

Here is the agenda for the TBISCC Council meeting  September 12.


NYS Department of Health

Empire State Plaza, NYS Museum Meeting Room A

(Concourse level of NYS Museum)

Monday, September 12, 2011

10:30 AM – 4:00 PM


10:30am – 10:45am Welcome

Review and Approval of Minutes from June 20, 2011 Meeting

10:45am – 11:45am Kristen Dams-O’Connor, Ph.D., Screening for Concussion in Collegiate Athletes, Brain Injury Research Center, Mt. Sinai Medical Center

11:45am – 12:45pm Brian Greenwald, M.D., Medical Director, Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program, Mt. Sinai Medical Center

12:45pm – 1:15pm LUNCH (members on their own)

1:15pm – 2:15pm Todd Nelson, Concussion Management Information/Guidelines, New York State Public High School Athletic Association

2:15pm – 3:15pm Discussion of Concussion Management and Awareness Act  (S. 3953-B)

3:15pm – 3:45pm Subcommittee reports

· Healthcare Reform/Non-Waiver Service Needs

· Public Awareness/ Injury Prevention and Information Dissemination

3:45pm – 4:00pm Public Comment/Summary/Next Steps/Adjournment