Independence Care System (ICS) Co-president Rick Surpin will step down from his position at the end of 2020, with Co-president Regina Estela moving into the role of president. Rick will continue to serve as a strategic advisor and a member of the board of directors.

Rick spoke with me about his decision to step down, ICS’ accomplishments, and his message for members.

You’ll be stepping down at the end of the year. What do you think is most important about your experience?

We have done what we set out to do, and we are still doing it. When we started 20 years ago, we had a simple idea. We wanted to develop a “piece of land” in the healthcare system where people with physical disabilities were welcome, where they would be seen, listened to, understood, and responded to as best we could at a given time.

We never thought it would be easy. It hasn’t been. We knew a fair amount and we have learned a lot more from experience, especially from our mistakes. We had to get many of our staff and the providers we contracted with to learn how to be disability competent. We had to develop new services to fill gaps in the system to respond to needs that were staring us in the face, like repairing members’ wheelchairs and creating social spaces for our members.

In the process, we had to continually develop trust with our members, a community that was long ignored, underserved and treated as “problem consumers” who advocate for themselves and cost too much. Trust was not easy to come by. It did come, and it must always be maintained.

We also had to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with New York State. This was the most difficult dimension. In many ways, ICS does not fit into the managed long-term care (MLTC) model and we brought a substantial number of people whose services cost a lot of money under one roof, ours. This unintentionally ran counter to the way the State wanted to look at service costs ─ i.e., spread out over many people. We tried to explain many times that people with physical disabilities being under one roof enabled us to develop skills and knowledge that kept individuals mobile and not controlled by wounds or infections to the maximum extent possible. As a result, our members had a better quality of life and fewer hospitalizations.

We have worked hard to listen to and understand how the staff at the Department of Health think and operate, and I believe they have done similar work with us. We have built a better relationship and that has benefitted our members.

Finally, the strong sense of community we have here, among both staff and members, is what has made this work so satisfying for me. ICS has a spirit that can be felt in the air. Building community takes many people and many different roles—my role was to promote ICS and our community and hopefully be a role model within it.

The most important part of my job was to elevate others as leaders. Marilyn Saviola and Anna Fay are great examples of how senior leaders contributed to our culture and organizational values. Both were experienced disability rights advocates when they came to ICS. Their perspectives became a benchmark that we still use today to make decisions and plans. We are a better organization because we welcomed more than just my worldview.

What does it mean for Regina to be assuming the role of president?

There is no one who is better suited to lead ICS in its next stage of development. We have worked together almost from the beginning. We share many of the same values and commitment to helping members live healthy, independent, and socially connected lives to the fullest extent as possible.

Over the years, Regina has consistently learned new things and taken on new challenges. I know she will be very successful. I am proud of the relationship that we have developed over many years and of the process of transition that got us to where we are today. We have done good work together and I am very happy for her.

A special connection has existed between the organization and its members that is arguably unmatched. What do you want members to know about your leaving ICS?

Personally, it is time for me to step down. It is not an easy step to take. I love this community, our people, and our spirit. I am not leaving but making room for other smart and dedicated people, most importantly Regina, to step up. I am ready to have less responsibility and Regina is ready to take on more.

I want people to know that we have built a good place. We have survived significant challenges as an organization and yet, we are poised for opportunities to grow and develop. Closing the MLTC plan was a huge loss but with the help and voices of our members in the Civics League for Disability Rights, ICS survived.

We still are a place where people with physical disabilities are welcome, are seen, are listened to and understood and responded to as best we can. We are living in very difficult times with scarce resources; it is a strange time to be experiencing an organizational reinvention. ICS cares deeply about our members and has access to an important skill set for survival – a clear vision, deep belief in our purpose and the ability to keep moving in the face of challenges. As a result, I will bet on ICS every time.