Philip W. Johnston is the President and Founder of the health care public affairs consulting firm, Johnston Associates, and has more than 30 years of experience in the public sector and elected office. Phil is currently Board Chair of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation and the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum. He also sits on the Boards of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the University of Massachusetts, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Medicaid Policy Institute, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
1. What connections do you see between health and homelessness?
There is a total connection between health and homelessness. Homeless people tend to have both physical and behavioral health issues, and are in and out of the emergency room and community health centers on a routine basis. They tend to be high cost patients, with a greater incidence of everything from asthma and other respiratory conditions to major illnesses like cancer. The health data is pretty clear; homeless people are high utilizers of the health care system.
2. Tell us about your connection to MHSA and the MHSA mission to end homelessness.
I go back many years with MHSA. As Secretary of Human Services under the Dukakis administration in the 1980s, homelessness was a top priority and we developed an extensive network of shelters, temporary housing and permanent housing.
Massachusetts spent more on housing solutions and new permanent housing than any other state in the country. MHSA helped us to enact major mental health reforms, including one that called for quadrupling the number of housing units available for mentally ill people in the Commonwealth. We also worked to create family support programs, emergency care and both state-of-the-art inpatient care and permanent housing for mentally ill individuals. We made significant progress working with MHSA.
MHSA works with the legislature very effectively and MHSA works with faith communities very well. While in office, I tried to develop coalitions to support programs for the homeless, and MHSA was key to that. MHSA has ties to key constituents in the state that are crucial to making positive changes in homelessness. People in government have relied on MHSA for a long time for help and guidance.
3. What motivated you toward a career focused on health, human rights and social justice?
I was born with it. I became involved with the civil rights movement as a teenager, and then became involved with progressive politics. I worked in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, which was a life-changing experience. I founded and ran a child welfare agency, the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, working with abused and neglected children of juvenile offenders. While I was on the legislature and in the cabinet, as well as later in the private sector, my life has been about these issues.
4. How have your years as a political official informed your current work as a consultant and board member for a variety of organizations?
My experience in government was very much focused on people in need. I continue to feel that this is a very wealthy country that doesn’t do enough to narrow the economic disparities between the very wealthy and those who don’t have as much. Public policy and political action are very important if we are to make our country more equitable for all our citizens. At the moment, things are going in the wrong direction. Collaborations between places like MHSA and progressive public officials are crucial to making sure we’re doing all we can to pull people out of poverty. MHSA should be very proud of what it’s accomplished on behalf of homeless people in the Commonwealth; keep up the great work.
5. What does this award mean to you?
This award is very significant in my life because homelessness and MHSA have been intertwined with so many things I’ve done in my career over the years. When I worked in state government, there were—believe it or not—40,000 people working in human services. We had an army of advocates. And so I represent all of them in accepting this award—and I am representing all of you who are on the front lines, working on behalf of people who need help.
MHSA will be honoring Philip W. Johnston, as well as Pamela Feingold of Eastern Bank and Mark Winkeller of Caritas Communities, at Home for Good: Solutions Start Here on May 16. Home for Good, a cocktail reception and awards presentation with hearty hors d’oeuvres, is MHSA’s ninth annual fundraising event. Join us for this elegant event at the Omni Parker House Hotel from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm on May 16. To buy tickets, click here.