“Dan, why don’t we just integrate?”
For Deanna Bellinger, it was that simple of a question. As a grassroots organizer, Deanna was involved in establishing a number of non-profit organizations. As a founder of Wellness Connections, and becoming the CEO in 2011, Deanna knew how to read industry trends, so she knew when it was time to adapt.
A trendsetter in his own right, Dan recognizes the importance of Peer-run recovery programs from his childhood experience in the State behavioral health system and now living 30 years clean and sober. “We used to be the token members, allowed to sit at the table but not speak. Then we were allowed to come to the table and speak then sit down,” Dan said. “Now, we speak and they can’t shut us up.”
Although Wellness Connections was nearly exclusive to rural Arizona and full of that frontier spirit while HOPE was much more focused on the cities, Dan and Deanna became fast friends and collaborators. They worked together on several projects and initiatives over the years, served on local and state-level committees, and frequently consulted each other. When Deanna decided it was time to pursue Wellness Connections becoming a licensed care provider in 2015, Dan helped her navigate the process. When Dan needed a sounding board, Deanna reminded him to slow down. “Historically, we worked well together, and It seemed like our organizations had so many areas of synergy,” said Deanna.
Over time, the number of reasons only grew as the two started to see more and more healthcare groups merge or get acquired. As Dan said, “I didn’t want to have to go through other people. Peer-runs have fought for access and authority, and suddenly it looked like we would no longer be Peer-run.” Deanna felt the same way: “This integration wasn’t a result of ‘have to’ but ‘want to.’ People in the community know of both of our groups, and this gives us an opportunity to be stronger.”
As of March 2020, HOPE Inc. and Wellness Connections achieved another first: completing the first Peer-run integration the state has ever seen. “Getting acquired by a non-Peer-run entity would have changed who we are. So for us, this is a chance to say, ‘we’re still here,’” said Dan. HOPE has already seen the effects of the integration. From covering over 30,000 square miles to currently contracting with a majority of the Medicaid health care plans in the state, HOPE is able to offer greater access to resources to Members across the former organizations’ communities. Wellness Connections continues to operate under its recognized brand in the communities it has served since 2002, but now as “a program of HOPE, Inc.” Most importantly, the seamless integration created greater opportunities for members than ever before. Where much of the world feels isolated, HOPE’s telehealth program is there to keep Members engaged and on track, and their new reach allows them to offer a stronger continuity of care.
When asked what lessons they learned, Dan immediately said “be realistic on the time that this takes.” Integrations that are successful take time, there has to be transparency not just with each other’s Board of Directors, but with your staff. “Then, when issues do come up, you can have an open discussion about what needs to be done,” remarked Deanna. Dan added, “it’s too easy to create an ‘us versus them’ environment, but it’s an INTEGRATION, not an acquisition,” especially for two organizations that share such similar goals. Deanna commented, “And don’t dismiss the differences in the organizations.” The assistance of the Arizona Together for Impact Fund was key here in offering support for those next steps. When everyone is working hard on the mechanics of the integration it is easy to lose sight of how paramount it is to also thoughtfully manage the cultural differences between the two organizations. The same can be said for the legal side. “Organizations considering integration need to have good legal guidance throughout the process, and make sure you have the budget for it,” said Dan.
“It’s a constant process,” stated Deanna. But after making their careers out of being first, Dan and Deanna are ready for that process. They know that together, they can achieve an economy of scale that not only lets them grow, but lets them keep their mission: to offer dignity and respect to their members, to remain Peer-run and peer-led, and to empower their Members through empathy and care.