Alumnus Brian Altman is at the forefront of most of the public health issues currently facing our nation. He is the Director of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) where he manages all of the agency’s relationships on Capitol Hill and oversees the publication of regulatory guidance.
Brian joined the federal agency whose mission it is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness in American communities after departing the firm in 2011. The opportunity to direct the legislative affairs for a $3.6 billion dollar agency was one he couldn’t pass up. Read on to learn more about why Brian chose Drinker Biddle, his current role and what he enjoys doing most when he isn’t working.
Tell us about your current role and the organization for which you work.
I am the Director of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs at SAMHSA. It is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA is a very small but mighty organization in comparison to other governmental agencies. Because of that, nobody gets to wear one hat. Our role as a regulator and policy guiding agency has increased since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The main things I do are managing all of the agency’s relations with Capitol Hill and the publication of guidelines and regulations we issue. I need to be on top of that process from start to finish.
What is something you’ve worked on that has been particularly satisfying for you?
I would have to say securing funding for the behavioral health programs that the President called for through the “Now is the Time” initiative following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012 has been the most satisfying. The initiative was aimed at improving and protecting America's children and communities from tragedies such as the mass shooting in Newtown. The President’s plan called for various new programs within SAMHSA dealing with the behavioral health of Americans ages 16 to 25. Congress was to appropriate money to SAMHSA to fund and undertake these new programs but it’s very difficult to find the money to support these programs in fiscally tough times. However, with the Fiscal Year 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, we were able to secure $115 of the $130 million that the President called for. Securing that funding was particularly rewarding not just for me or SAMHSA but more importantly for the mental health community.
I understand you’ve recently been working with fellow Drinker Biddle alumna and current FDA Congressional Affairs Specialist, Elaine Vining. Tell us about that.
We typically work together whenever Congress addresses America’s prescription drug abuse problem. Dealing with the questions and issues that arise are often a combined effort for SAMHSA, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health and other agencies. We end up either having our bosses testify together or getting on conference calls to brief members of Congress and staff together. Most recently, there has been a lot of press around prescription drug abuse possibly causing a rise in heroin addiction and so lately we’ve done a lot of work on various issues relating to that. For example, FDA regulates drugs that treat opioid addiction and prevent overdose and SAMHSA funds the use of these drugs and devices.
Have you always had a strong desire to work on healthcare related issues?
I’ve always been interested in healthcare policy. In part I think because I was born with a congenital heart defect and was unwillingly engaged in the medical system from a very early age. I also had early exposure to behavioral health policy issues and developed a real attachment to those issues as a result of my experiences with friends and family who struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. Those experiences really affected me more than most people I know realize.
How and when did you come to join Drinker Biddle?
I was the Director of Public Policy and Program Development at a suicide prevention non-profit for about two years and it ended up merging with another organization. As is often the case with most organizational combinations, there were a lot of changes that came with the merger. Among other things, there was a shift in the culture of the organization. I began looking for another opportunity that might be a better fit. I found Drinker Biddle’s government relations group and was really drawn to the firm by its wide range of clients. For the most part, I was looking for a group that worked on important issues facing pharmaceutical and medical device companies but also one that worked with public health organizations. I joined the firm as a Senior Government Relations Manager in 2009 and while at the firm I got to do really interesting and satisfying work. I worked on matters for the Harlem United Community AIDS Center that supports people living with HIV/AIDS and Prevent Blindness America which is dedicated to fighting blindness and saving sight. Those were really rewarding experiences.
Do you recall any other particularly rewarding or memorable matters that you worked on at Drinker Biddle that stand out amongst the rest?
The most memorable experiences for me were working with the non-profit the Adult Congenital Heart Association. I had been on the board of the association before I joined the firm and actually brought them on as a firm client. Many might not know this but a small section of the Affordable Care Act includes something called the Congenital Heart Futures Act which established a surveillance system at the CDC for individuals like me who were born with congenital heart defects. When I was at Drinker Biddle, we worked on ensuring that appropriation for the research and surveillance programs outlined in that Act were secured.
What do you enjoy doing most when you’re not working?
Well, my husband and I have an almost nine month old and so we are pretty consumed by our Stella Beatrix right now. There is always something exciting going on as a new parent!
Do you have any professional goals that you have yet to achieve?
In terms of professional goals, in my current job I’d like to increase awareness of SAMHSA. I want to work on Congressional outreach so folks on Capitol Hill will really know and understand better what SAMHSA does. That will help us advance our work.