Arango, John 2017

Last modified: 2021-02-24 05:25
Storyteller: Arango, John
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2017-12-08
Length: 1:06:04

Topics: Civil legal aid: General, Civil legal aid: State Funding, Disability: Benefits, Disability: Child, Nonprofit management, Priority setting, Pro bono, and Training
Geo, US: National and NM
Lists:
Medium: Video
Collection:

NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.125
Georgetown status: Video upon request
Georgetown notes: summary, bio note, keywords
Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/301
NEJL AV link:

Video status:
Video notes:

Transcript link: Transcript
Transcript status: DeleteMeSoon
Transcript notes:

Consortium status: Gtn info copied
Consortium notes:

Excerpt:

Directed New Mexico Legal Aid. Chaired NM Civil Legal Services Commission. Longtime consultant on legal aid to ABA, NLADA and numerous state/local organizations. Started with OEO Legal Services.



Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: Interview with John Arango, conducted by Alan Houseman at the NLADA annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on December 8, 2017.

Description

Full text of transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
John Arango
Conducted by Alan Houseman
Dec. 8, 2017

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of John Arango. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. The interview takes places in Washington, DC on Friday, December 8, 2017.

Alan Houseman:
John, let’s begin by going over just briefly your life history, essentially. Where you grew up, where you went to school, and various jobs you’ve held. then we’re going to come back and focus on some of your work.

John Arango:
Okay. I was born in Syracuse, New York. My father was an immigrant from Columbia, South America. Just before I was eight, the whole family moved to Columbia where we lived for three years while my father worked on a railroad project or a hydroelectric project. Moved back to New York state when I was roughly 11. Went to high school in Poughkeepsie. Went to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. Then joined the Peace Corps which oddly enough sent me back to Columbia where for certain I had dozens more relatives than I had in the United States.

John Arango:
I was in the Peace Corps for two years, came back, went to the University of New Mexico due to Peace Corps training. The way we did the training was to have the volunteers that were in training live for a couple weeks in a small, Spanish speaking community in northern New Mexico where we had active community organizing projects going on with full-time organizers who lived there. Volunteers would come in and out. So we had a number of communities that were being organized at the time that the Office of Economic Opportunity was created. One day we were in our office at the university. Two people came in and said, “Hi, we’re from the new Office of Economic Opportunity. We’ve been touring around the state. We’re impressed with your organizing. How would you like $200,000 to organize the rest of the state?” As I tell people, those days are gone forever.

John Arango:
We took the money and got involved in organizing all over the state. Our theory was we create low income groups and then build the community action agencies on top of those. This was very controversial work. At the end of 1967, I decided it was time for me to move on. I became the special assistant to the western regional director of the OEO. I was involved just at the very tail end of the CRLA veto, and then got involved in a number of projects.

John Arango:
Towards the end of 1968 when it became clear that Richard Nixon might be elected, I started looking around for other things to do. Out of the clear blue sky, Jack Vaughn, who I’d known for some time and at that point was the director of the Peace Corps, called me up. He asked if I’d be available to be the country director in Panama. I said immediately yes. My son was actually born on the night that Nixon was elected. I spent a little more than a year as Panama’s director and then moved to Ecuador. For the rest of the roughly five years I was in the Peace Corps, I was country director there in Ecuador.

John Arango:
It turned out that the then director of the Latin America Peace Corps office was also the chair of the board of a nonprofit management consulting firm. When I came back he hooked me up with a project they had at that point with NLADA to try to figure out some way of controlling caseloads. They had experimental programs around the country. It turned out Albuquerque where I was headed was one of the test sites. So I helped them do a priority setting meeting. Another one came up almost immediately in the San Fernando Valley, and then I was an expert.

John Arango:
Basically from there I developed a career in legal services working with programs, working with the Corporation, working the American Bar Association. I played any number of roles, and pretty well finished up all that work around 2014, when I decided that after more than 20 years of training new executive directors for MIE, it was time for me to move on. That’s essentially it.

Alan Houseman:
What factors led you to go in the Peace Corps and ultimately to get involved with legal aid work? What influences? Family influences, religions, significant others, or nothing?

John Arango:
Primarily that I needed something to do when I graduated from college, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. It was 1961. The Peace Corps had just been announced. Nobody had any idea what it was all about. At that point, I’d taken the Graduate Record Exam. So at that point you had to take an exam to get into the Peace Corps which turned out to be the same as the Graduate Record Exam. That was pretty easy. But I’d say my career is more a series of fortunate coincidences. I didn’t sit down and plan out that I was going to do this kind of work.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s first start with your American Bar Association work. You worked on something called BIP, which I’ll let you explain. Then of course you were active in some ways with SCLAID.

John Arango:
I was trying to remember how I got involved with the American Bar Association. I think it was through the work that I was doing with the pro bono demonstration program directors. When the private attorney involvement regulation was approved, it was clear that something needed to be done to ensure that most of that money was spent on pro bono activity rather than other alternatives like Judicare or contract attorneys or whatever.

John Arango:
So the former demonstration project directors persuaded the Corporation, or maybe the Corporation persuaded them, I’m not sure of exactly how it happened, to hold a series of conferences around the country to train executive directors about what the private attorney involvement regulation was all about. It would include a heavy dose of, the best way to fulfill that requirement is to use pro bono, and here are some ways that you can set up those programs so that it has minimum impact on the total amount of money you have to spend. Here’s how to show that you’re spending 12.5% on PAI when in fact you’re not. So we did those conferences around the country.

John Arango:
I think the next step of my getting involved was there was a federal judge in Miami. There were 1,800 Haitians that were being held in detention at Krome Detention Center in Miami. The federal judge decided that if the American Bar Association were willing to find attorneys to represent the 1,800 Haitians, that he would release them from detention. Remarkably, I don’t think anybody ever understood why the board of governors of the ABA decided that they would accept the challenge from the judge. So they needed somebody to find 1,800 lawyers to represent the Haitians. That was me, largely because, again, I just happened to be available.

John Arango:
The plan had been that they would go to ten cities. I think in fact they went to 45. But it turned out that local lawyers were already organizing themselves to provide some representation. So what I mostly did was to try to keep track of where all 1,800 were and ensure that training materials and support were available. It was a pretty time consuming project, but we did in fact find attorneys for all of the 1,800. In the end, even though we did a lot of training on how to hold a hearing, the Congress settled the issue by simply creating an asylum category for all the 1,800 Haitians. So they were all eventually granted asylum status.

John Arango:
That was a project that SCLAID was charged with, so I had some connections with SCLAID. I became an informal advisor to Bob Raven who at that point was the chair of SCLAID. I also started doing some work with the ABA committee that was called the Commission on Public Service or something like that. It was basically the pro bono committee. They wanted to do an annual conference and so I organized the annual conference.

John Arango:
I happened to be in Miami one day when I heard, talking to some of the people that we were involved with it, about the interest of the Chief Justice of Florida’s Supreme Court in something called IOLTA. I got some background about it. I came back to Washington and met with the field people to say, “You know, this is too good to be true, but it’s probably something you want to pay attention to.” So that led me to do some work with the IOLTA commission.

John Arango:
But BIP, the Bar Information Program, was something entirely different. That was related to representation for low income people charged with crimes. Norm Lefstein, who was a member of SCLAID, had done a survey of the way that public defense services are provided in every state, and the levels of funding. The conclusion from that was that the public defense sector was seriously deficient in almost every state. It was either inadequately funded or services provided largely by outside counsel rather than by public defenders. The conclusion was that the American Bar Association needed to do something about it. So out of that grew this Bar Information Program whose purpose was to convince local bar associations that they needed to get more involved in understanding and improving the public defense that was available in their state. I did that for, I don’t know, sixteen years or something.

Alan Houseman:
In a prior oral history, you talked a lot about the priority of some of the work you did with programs and some other things. Talk about the LSC Next Steps project.

John Arango:
Next Steps was a project that I think originated largely in the board of the LSC rather than in the staff. The theory behind it was that the funding had now been put into place to cover the country. Every county in the United States at least in theory had a legal aid program or legal services program covering it. That was a six or seven year effort to raise the funding to that level. So the question was, what’s the next step for the Legal Services Corporation? What do we do? Again, I was hired by the Corporation to set up a series of regional meetings that would bring together clients, staff, board members, and in theory others that might be interested in the LSC, but very few of them showed up. It was largely insiders to talk about what should be the emphasis of the Legal Services Corporation over the next few years.

John Arango:
Hillary Rodham, or Hillary Clinton, was at that point the chair of the board of the LSC. My recollection is she attended every one of the regional meetings. I think we did five or six in different places around the country. She attended and participated in every one of them. I was always impressed with the fact that at some point we divided into small groups. So staff would go off in one place, board members would go off in another, and clients would go off in another. Hillary always went to the client meetings and got along with the clients just remarkably well. I mean, she was open, she was interested, she was sympathetic. She was very convincing as someone who was really dedicated to trying to understand what the client issues were and figuring out ways that they could be more involved in the next steps.

John Arango:
We did issue a report. The conclusion was that the next step ought to be a focus on quality of the services that were being offered by the programs. But the conclusion never had much impact on the Corporation. Just about the time that we finished this up, Ronald Reagan was elected president. So the emphasis was immediately on survival rather than on anything as esoteric as the quality of services that programs were providing. It was an interesting opportunity to get a sense of what was going on around the country and what programs were interested in doing. It certainly emerged that we still had quality issues, both in the existing programs had had very significantly expanded, and in the new programs. I found that we had a much larger staff, and we had universal geographical coverage. But we had a lot of programs that needed help in figuring out what issues they ought to address and how they should organize their staff and handle the overwhelming caseloads and some other issues.

Alan Houseman:
Right. I’d like to now turn to your work in New Mexico. Over the years, you’ve done a number of things with New Mexico Legal Aid. At one point you were in fact the executive director of New Mexico Legal Aid. You were on the New Mexico’s civil legal services commission, the Access to Justice commission, and there’s other things. Describe what you did throughout these years.

John Arango:
Sure. As I mentioned, the first thing that I did with legal services at all was a priority setting meeting in Albuquerque. It was an excellent place to start because it was a very strong program with really an exceptional staff. It was doing things like it had one of the very first lobbyists of any program in the country. It was involved with the legislature. It had some individual services, but it was mostly focused on large issues. It was very much involved in police-community relations. That was before I really got involved. But they had a long history of working with something called the Brown Berets that were the subject of police brutality. It was a very strong program, a very good program, and really a terrific introduction to legal services. I still have contact with some of the people that I met there like Michael Browde who ought to be interviewed at some point if he hasn’t already been. After that, I tended to work more in other parts of the country, but periodically I would come back and work with Albuquerque Legal Aid or with Northern New Mexico Legal Services or Indian Pueblo Legal Services. I did very little in the south, but did a lot in the northern part of the state, and it would be things like they wanted to do a board retreat. I did priority setting in all of those programs.

John Arango:
I became much more involved in 1995-96 when it was clear that Congress was going to make significant cuts and that we needed to do something at the state level to minimize the impact of those cuts. As it turned out, Sarah Singleton at that point the president of the New Mexico Bar Association. I didn’t know her, but as you know, that’s another person you ought to talk to. She went on to become very active in the ABA. She was chair of SCLAID. Probably more importantly, she was the chair of the committee within SCLAID that wrote the current set of standards for legal aid programs.

John Arango:
She was very interested in doing something in New Mexico. So we created on the side a large pro bono program to try to get private attorneys to take some of the cases from staff that were being laid off. That was successful. We did one of the very early state plans trying to figure out what resources we would need to do better than 20% representation. That was at the time when the ABA had just issued their national survey. So there was a lot of data available about what the issues were, what kinds of services were being provided both by staff attorneys and private attorneys. That led us to create a model for New Mexico that would involve the private bar in a meaningful way along with the staff programs to try to do a better job of extending legal services across the state.

John Arango:
That was like a task force that became a committee. It was clear that at that point there was no state money involved. So one of the big efforts became to try to get some money from the state. There were three efforts to get a filing fee set up. The governor vetoed them the first two times. They passed the legislature but the government vetoed both of the first two times. But the third one for some reason, he agreed to it. The hypothesis was that in the meantime the governor had himself been sued, and perhaps now that he found himself in the position of being sued that he maybe was a little more sympathetic for the plight of people that found themselves in exactly the situation with no lawyer. But in any case, he signed it.

John Arango:
That led to the creation of something called the Civil Legal Services Commission. That was responsible for distributing these funds. They, I think, made their first grants in 2002. In the meantime, the Legal Services Corporation was putting pressure on states to merge programs. I was doing that work all over the country. But I participated as a volunteer in New Mexico. I attended many of the meetings. I gave them some sense of what was happening in the rest of the state. They finally agreed that they would merge northern New Mexico, Indian Pueblo Legal Services, Albuquerque Legal Aid, and Southern New Mexico Legal Services into one program called New Mexico Legal Aid. I applied for and became the director of the new, merged program.

John Arango:
That then led to an effort to get an appropriation from the legislature rather than just the filing fees. We got a small amount from the legislature. In the session in 2006, in the middle of the year, we put together a major show and tell. The legislature was very sympathetic. We got them to agree. I think the first appropriation they made was $2.5 million which was a lot of money in those days. For example, the total amount of money that New Mexico Legal Aid had was $5 million so a $2.5 million increase was a pretty significant increase.

John Arango:
So that then focused the attention, certainly my attention, on the Civil Legal Services Commission, who they were, what they were all about. Sarah was the first chair of that commission. So I was very involved when Sarah became a district court judge and they were looking for someone to chair the commission. I left New Mexico Legal Aid as director very early 2006. So I was available. I went back to doing some consulting. When Sarah left, they were looking for someone that had some legal services experience to chair the commission. We all knew the governor, Governor Bill Richardson. So he appointed me to the commission in Sarah’s place, and I’ve been the chair ever since.

John Arango:
At the time that I was director of New Mexico Legal Aid, one of the Supreme Court justices, Petra Maes, who had started her career as a staff attorney in legal services, was interested in creating an Access to Justice Commission. Sarah and I did all the background work and helped create the first organization. Sarah became co-chair with Justice Maes. Initially I served as staff as a volunteer. Then a couple of years later, the court got some money to hire a staff person but she largely does the administrative tasks connected with it. I’ve remained in the role of their substantive assistant. I write the RFPs, I help review proposals and stuff like that. There’s wrinkles in all of this, but that’s probably enough.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. You’ve also been active in MIE, and you mentioned the new lawyer training. Talk a little bit about your work with MIE.

John Arango:
Right. I think I got involved with MIE when … I knew Victor Geminiani. One of the very early priority settings that we did was in western Massachusetts. I got to know Victor through that and continued to have contacts with him when he became director of the southern region. I did a lot of work in that region helping when they were going through a massive expansion. So when Victor and others formed MIE, I was there. I helped with some of the early organizing. Then when Guy Lescault became executive director of MIE, I had known him from the work that he had done in the southern regional office, and then later in Washington, D.C. So I did retreats for the MIE board. I helped organize the annual conferences that they were doing. I became the person that carried out a lot of the functions that MIE was involved in.

John Arango:
That led to one of the things agreed by the MIE board, I and Guy. We needed to do some training for new executive directors. At first, it was done very informally. We’d try to set up a network to identify brand new executive directors. That network would then feed the information to Guy. Guy would contact them and say, “Why don’t you come to NLADA, we’ll meet during NLADA and do some training.” That ultimately developed into a much more organized effort starting in maybe ’91 or ’92 where we really devoted a lot of time and effort to trying to figure out what do new executive directors need to know, and how do we help them in a two day training session.

John Arango:
The original concept was that then they would be paired with an experienced executive director who’d continue to provide support to them after the training because it was clear that you can only cover so many issues in a two day training. You needed a lot more than that. So I continued to do that I think until around 2014. The content varied a lot over the years. What we tried to do is to achieve some balance. We try to identify what are the central issues in the life of an executive director using some management material. We’d balance that against getting the new directors to talk about the situation that existed in their program as they found it, and what they were doing about it, and what their chief concerns were, and a very practical discussion about how you might approach that.

John Arango:
We developed a huge stack of training materials that as far as I know, MIE is still using. It was an interesting time. Over that period, we trained about somewhere between a third and a half of all the directors in the country. It was something that had pretty significant impact.

Alan Houseman:
You have been, throughout your legal services work, involved with programs around priority setting planning and strategic planning. How do you see strategic planning today from what was done say ten, twenty years ago, or is it roughly the same?

John Arango:
It’s different. The concept behind the original effort really was planning. It was not priority setting. Priority setting didn’t really become an issue until ’68 when the priority setting regulation was passed, in part thanks to you. This nonprofit management consulting firm wrote a manual called “Too Many Clients, Too Little Time”. The idea was that you had to reduce the caseload and gain control of intake so that your attorneys would have more time to figure out what were the central issues in the cases that they were seeing and could then focus their attention on a set of goals that would would identify what the outcome of the efforts that they were undertaking would be.

John Arango:
The manual outlined a process for this. It was basically a 2 or 3 day retreat. A selected group of clients, the staff, and the board would all go off somewhere. A lot of these were programs that were based in cities, so typically somewhere out in the country they’d find a hotel. We’d all go out there and spend usually somewhere between one and a half and two days in an intensive discussion that was highly structured.

John Arango:
First, everybody in the room would suggest topics that they wanted to discuss. Sometimes they were substantive issues. Sometimes they were methods of providing services. We’d plaster the wall with each one. Anything that one person said was written on a card and posted on the wall. Then the whole group organized those cards into topics. The topics then went into small groups that were composed of the same clients, board members, staff. That group would come out with a recommendation of goals that they thought ought to be achieved. That was then discussed. There was then a straw vote to try to identify which were the issues that were of most interest. Then there was a period of discussion which everybody tried to persuade the rest to focus on this particular issue rather than that issue. Then there was a final vote, and then the board would go off in a room and adopt the results of this meeting as the plan for the program.

John Arango:
The manual said that the next step would be that the staff would then meet on their own to try to figure out how to redistribute the resources that the program had to match with the goals that were set. That didn’t happen too often. When it did happen, I think it was pretty effective. I mean, it led to some major changes in the issues that programs were addressing or the way that they were addressing those issues. In most instances, you came out with a set of what became more emphasis for the program. That was the original model.

John Arango:
The idea was that it was a positive effort. That is, you would identify issues that are of great concern to all — to the board, the staff, and the clients. You would set some goals about what you wanted to achieve. Expanding the income support program in the state, or improving the functioning of the agency that handled income support. So that was a positive thrust. That meant you would search for, or you’d be more willing at intake to look at, clients that had the sorts of issues on income support that you wanted to work on. You’d work with them intensely to achieve this goal.

John Arango:
The secondary issue was a more negative one which is to try to control intake. You may remember you were present at a meeting we had in the state of Oregon where they did the typical thing. They had open intake. They were overwhelmed. Then they said, “Well, we’ll limit intake, but we’ll have emergency intake.” So they tried that for awhile. They were still overwhelmed. So then they had emergency emergency intake. They tried that for awhile. Then they had emergency emergency emergency intake.

John Arango:
What you typically saw were programs that would be open let’s say for intake for three days and then would close intake for six months because in three days they managed to overwhelm themselves. Or they would have intake where if you were at the office at 9:00 AM on Monday standing outside the door before they opened, you were likely to get accepted. But otherwise after the first ten people were through the door, they’d say, “Sorry, come back next Monday.” First of all, as executed it was a pretty brutal way to try to control caseload. More importantly the eleventh client might’ve been exactly the person that had the issue that would make a major change in the state. But the person never got through the door. The staff never had an opportunity to talk to them.

John Arango:
So, one of the things that we tried to do was to say, you need to structure your intake in such a way as to ensure clients that had issues that the plan had said you needed to focus on were the ones who got through the door. That led to much more rational ways of screening clients and creating intake staff that actually did interviews to identify who wanted to be represented by the program.

John Arango:
Over a period of time, the emphasis gradually shifted from, “We’re going to identify some positive things we’re going to achieve in the community” to “We’re going to control our caseload.” That was a very different emphasis. I remember, it must’ve been around ’83 or ’84, doing a session. Someone called me up and said, “There’s a program in Pennsylvania that wants to set priorities but what they want to do is to identify the issues that they’re NOT going to work on rather than the issues that are of primary interest.” I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s what this is all about. But I’m very curious to see how this is going to work, and so I’ll facilitate the meeting, work with the staff to set it up.” So we did it, and it was a huge success. The staff just loved it because we identified 20 issues that they weren’t going to do anything about. I recognize that we had made a fundamental shift and that’s what the whole effort was all about. We’d moved from “these are issues that deserve our attention” to “these are a way of protecting ourselves from overwhelming caseload.”

John Arango:
To a large extent, the formal priority setting processes continued to be largely control caseload. The idea that a group of people ought to come together and identify goals for the program pretty well got lost. Those things were expensive and time consuming and frequently disrupting to the program because it turned out that clients, for example, thought that much more effort should be put into impact work. Much more work should be put in working with the legislature on the state level rather than direct representation. These kinds of events, the large community meetings, could be quite disruptive. It was much easier to simply do a quick survey of what were the issues that typically were coming to the program most frequently and have the board say, “Those are the things that we should put our emphasis on and forget all the other kinds of issues.” That’s pretty much where priority setting ended up.

Alan Houseman:
I want to turn briefly to other aspects of your life. Besides Peace Corps, you’ve been involved with some other things. Family Voices, I want to talk a little bit about that. New Mexico medical insurance pool. Sandoval planning and zoning commission, the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and any other thing I’ve forgotten. You’re not just involved in legal aid. You have your interests and involvements.

John Arango:
Family Voices and the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council all rose out of the fact that, while we had two kids of our own, my wife and I agreed that we would like a larger family so we adopted a daughter in Ecuador. Then when we got back to New Mexico, we adopted a son. It turned out that he had very significant disabilities. So we then started using whatever system was available for supports for kids with disabilities and for their families. We recognized really early that the system in New Mexico, and actually almost virtually anywhere in the country, was grossly inadequate.

John Arango:
Two things. We had a friend, a physician, who was involved in doing evaluations of kids with disabilities. He was on something called the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. They needed someone to write a state plan for New Mexico for services for young children. I came on the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, and then went off and got the contract to write the plan. Which was a very interesting exercise. It basically said early intervention is critical to the long-term success of virtually all efforts with kids with disabilities. We needed to shift services which were largely school-based to much younger children. It was quite controversial, particularly among the school people.

John Arango:
My wife and a friend of hers got very involved in working with the legislature. We lowered the school age to three for kids with developmental disabilities. We’ve greatly expanded programs, and they accomplished a lot. Partly because of this friend Mary, the president of the Senate was very convinced that this was a good idea. So we had very strong support in the legislature. In the meantime, a woman named Julie Beckett had a daughter that at age two became very significantly disabled as a result of the encephalitis. She was on Medicaid, but Medicaid in those days was only available if you were hospitalized. So basically this two year old was going to grow up in a hospital. Julie through contacts with various senators and congressmen in Iowa where she lived ultimately got to meet with Ronald Reagan and convinced him that they needed to create a waiver within the Medicaid program that would enable services to be provided outside of an institutional setting.

John Arango:
That led to something called the Beckett Waiver which did in fact enable Medicaid to serve kids with disabilities anywhere. Julie then engaged in a national program to meet with parents all over the country to get them to persuade their state to apply for the waiver. She came through New Mexico, and we were very impressed and very thankful for the work that she’d been doing. But that led to the creation of a cadre of people from various states that coordinated their efforts and worked with Julie to get all states to apply for the Beckett Waiver. Ultimately, they formed a very close relationship with the folks at Health and Human Services that were involved with services for kids with disabilities through Social Security. I think it was Title XIX or Title XX. So that was in place towards the end of the 1980s.

John Arango:
When Hillary Clinton led this effort to do fundamental change in health insurance, there were early indications that not very much effort was going to be spent on kids with disabilities. So the same group that had been leading the national effort went to Washington. This was really early in the Clinton Administration when Bill Clinton brought in mostly folks from Arkansas to critical positions. They had no idea what they were doing. Literally no idea. But it turned out that the person that was his first domestic advisor was someone who had been in his administration in Arkansas and was the mother of a child with disabilities.

John Arango:
Maybe two days after the inauguration, Polly and Julie and some others called this person up and said, “Hi, we have this issue with kids with disabilities, and we’d love to meet with you.” She said, “Well I essentially have nothing to do some come on over.” They went over and talked to her, and that gave them an entre into the administration. They had very good connections with congress because they were all active in their states. But they didn’t really know anybody in the White House. So that gave them an entre into the White House that we hadn’t had before.

John Arango:
That led to a meeting. I forget what the guy’s name was, but there was a consultant that Hillary was using, a guy from Rhode Island. Anyway, through this contact with a domestic advisor, they were able to set up a meeting with him. He essentially said these exact words, “Kids with disabilities don’t exist. Forget about any special component of the plan that Hillary is working on for kids with disabilities. We’re not going to bother with it because it’s not going to have any effect.” Ultimately, that led to a special survey from the Census Bureau to identify how many kids there were that had significant disabilities. The standard was three limitations on functions of daily life. Well it turned out there’s 12 million. So actuarially, they really did exist. So when they left this meeting, they basically said we have to organize on a national level. We have to formally organize and fight this because otherwise we’re going to get cut out of any changes that happen in the healthcare system.

John Arango:
So that led to the creation of something called Family Voices. It initially started as a newsletter that my wife wrote and I then printed and we sent out. We were trying to assemble an address list of families that would receive this information. We stopped creating the database when we had 50,000 names. It just got to be too overwhelming. Ultimately, Family Voices is essentially a Family Voices organization in all 50 states, and then a central group that provides support to the individual organizations. For a volunteer led effort, it was just too difficult to manage something that was that large. So that’s the Family Voices story.

John Arango:
I think one of the themes comes from way back when we were doing the OEO organizing in New Mexico, and we were running into problems with senators and with the police and all that. My conclusion was that poor people alone did not have significant enough power to really make a change. What you had to do was to find issues that were common to the middle class and to poor people and organize around those issues. Then you could create a coalition that’d have enough political power to really make a change.

John Arango:
Looking back at my whole career, I’d probably say that what I’ve been doing since the mid-70s was figuring out ways of organizing middle class people around issues that also are very important to poor people. Ideally, we were creating organizations like Family Voices that had everything from families that were really in trouble in terms of their obligations to their kids and very little income or had HIV, or the whole range of people that were really in trouble all the way to really wealthy people that were more than happy to participate and support the organization. My work with legal services could be thought of as ways of organizing this particular group of largely middle class people to be more effective in terms of the work that they’re doing with poor people.

Alan Houseman:
What is the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool.

John Arango:
Going back, the one we were talking about is named Patty Jennings. Originally she was married to a person who was active in the oil fields in southern New Mexico. She had a daughter with Down Syndrome. You could not buy health insurance in the 80s if you had a kid with Down Syndrome or your husband worked in the oil fields. You simply could not buy health insurance. In addition to all the work that she was doing for kids with disabilities, she decided that she was going to create a high risk health insurance pool in New Mexico. At that point I think there were around ten states that had it. This was something that started in Minnesota where you had very substantial numbers of farmers who also could not buy health insurance. The idea of the high risk insurance pool was to create a pool of people who could not buy health insurance but had enough money to buy health insurance and make it possible for them to get health insurance by working as a pool and developing their own plans and selling it to themselves and so forth.

John Arango:
That was Patty’s idea. She came into our kitchen with a stack of documents about this high and put them down and said, “Well here are all the statutes to create high risk insurance pools, and we’re going to have one in New Mexico.” Well, we thought she was nuts. But she did it. Again, largely because it’s very helpful to have your husband be the president of the Senate.

John Arango:
It went along for a few years. I think I joined the board again in maybe ’91 or ’92. It was about four or five years old. This is individual insurance. We had about 800 people that had coverage and we didn’t grow. We just stayed at the 600 level. We’d go up a little bit and down as people went in and out. Ultimately, the board said the central problem that we have here is that most people in New Mexico can’t afford us. Our insurance is just too expensive. It is slightly more expensive than the average rates but that was way beyond the ability of most people in New Mexico. We created something called the low income premium plan which offered up to a 75% discount off the rates and made the plan all the way up to 400% of the federal poverty level. You’ve got 25% at discount at 400% and then all the way down to 75% discount at a level slightly above the federal poverty level. In three years we had 10,000 members.

John Arango:
The board is composed of representatives of the top insurance companies, a group of consumers, and then some other people that were involved in it. Over a period of time, we really became much more interested in insuring essentially universal coverage while trying to stabilize the health insurance market in New Mexico. So we lobbied. We actually hired a lobbyist and paid $100,000 to get the exchange created in New Mexico. Again, it was vetoed the first time by the governor but successful the second time. We’ve created all kinds of special programs for people. We have a program for people with HIV. We have a program for people with cystic fibrosis, we have a program with end stage renal disease. All of these are focused on ensuring that people, whatever their economic level, are able to buy insurance to get these services.

John Arango:
It’s complicated to explain, but lately what we’ve realized is that what we need to focus on is much more what we call care management. The way our statute is written, we don’t have any control over the rates that we charge. We don’t have any control over who’s eligible. Basically anybody’s eligible although again there’s a lot of complications. Our losses are very significant. I mean, when we had 10,000 members, we were losing $125 million a year. We’re talking about big bucks here.

John Arango:
What we realized is the only way that we’re ever going to reduce the cost of a program like this is to focus much more intently on care management, particularly on people that have chronic diseases or have the likelihood of running up a big bill. It’s not uncommon for us to have two or three people ever month that have a $300,000, $400,000 hospital bill. We have very … a great many people in New Mexico with diabetes. That’s a particular problem in our state. We have a lot of problem with opioids and heroin. So what we’ve begun to focus much more on is how do we both reduce the cost and get better health outcomes by putting much more attention on really getting to know every one of the individuals that we cover and providing them with a support that will ensure that they understand their disease, take their medicines, go to the doctor when they need to go, and so forth in hopes of reducing the total cost of the most expensive participants in the healthcare system.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. Let me just ask a little bit about some personal things that you do. You play in the Albuquerque Philharmonic and you’re also a photographer. Talk a little bit about each of those.

John Arango:
Photography was something that grew out of way back when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I think we got $30 a month as living expenses but it was probably more than that. Maybe it was $80 a month. But it turned out that you could live on a lot less than that in a small village in Columbia. A lot of us were interested in photography just because there was so many photographs to take. I used a good part of my monthly allowance to buy ultimately a camera. Then when I was doing Peace Corps training, a couple of times I would go down to Latin America just to see how the volunteers that we had trained were doing. I always took along my camera with the idea that I would then take slides that I could then use in the training to show people what they were getting involved in.

John Arango:
After awhile, I realized that I had a huge collection of photos of rural Latin America that probably nobody had. So I contacted a photo service in New York and basically said, “Hey, I’ve got all these photos. Are you interested?” The way I identified this service was I went through a book that had been produced by a famous photo show called The Family of Man. Under each one of the photos in The Family of Man, there was a credit for where that photo came from. I just counted up which was the service that had the most photographs in The Family of Man and wrote them a letter and said, “I’ve got all these slides of rural Latin America. Are you interested?” They were. I made them available to them. It never amounted to much. You know, I think I made $100 a month or something from that but that was fun. That’s the photo stuff.

John Arango:
The music, way back in high school I’d gotten involved in playing. We had a local community orchestra that needed an oboe player so I played in that. I played in college. When I was at the University of New Mexico, the professional orchestra practiced at the university. I just happened to hear them one time and said, “I can play at that level.” I joined them and played in the professional orchestra for two or three years before we moved away.

John Arango:
Forty years went by. I played a little bit in Latin America. When I was in Ecuador, they needed an extra oboe player. in the national symphony, which was without question the worst professional orchestra in the world. They were really awful. Just to tell you a funny story. We had an Austrian conductor. I have no idea how he ended up in Ecuador, but anyways we had an Austrian conductor. It was time of a military government. So the military had an event for the military officers and their families. They wanted the national symphony to come play. The national symphony agreed. They bused us to this military base. We’re playing Viennese waltzes and stuff. One of the officers came up to the conductor and said, “Play some Ecuadorian music.” The conductor said, “We don’t play that …” Well, a bad word. The next day he was gone. So they recruited an Ecuadorian composer to be the new conductor of the orchestra and he basically cleaned shop. He said, “Every musician in the orchestra has to join some kind of a chamber group, and we’re going to have chamber concerts from all these different groups until you reach the level where I think you can play adequately in the symphony.” That cleaned out the entire orchestra, and he rebuilt. By the time I left, it was really a pretty good orchestra.

John Arango:
But then 40 years went by when I didn’t play. I mean, I was traveling all over and doing stuff like that. Then I got connected up with this Albuquerque Philharmonic. After I’d been there a few months we had elections for the board. The first oboe player said, “Well you are somebody that’s been working in nonprofits. Why don’t you become vice president?” I said okay, and so they made me vice president. I didn’t realize that meant I was also the manager of the orchestra. I continue to manage the orchestra although, at the end of the season, I’m going to retire as manager. I’ll probably keep playing. We’re not bad. As a community orchestra, we’re actually pretty good.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s turn to your thoughts on the future of civil legal aid. There’s all kinds of trends going on here and there, but I wondered what your thoughts are.

John Arango:
Well it seems to me one of the things you can conclude from the history of legal aid, at least as I’ve lived it, is that legal aid in terms of what goes on at a daily basis is essentially a very conservative organization. It tends to easily get in a habit of doing certain things certain ways and just continues doing them forever. As a political body, it’s extremely flexible and effective. We couldn’t figure out how to get around the ’96 restrictions. But in general legal aid can figure out how to continue to be an effective organization regardless of what happens with funding levels and restrictions and blah blah blah.

John Arango:
I think the future of civil legal services is assured. I thought that the material that we saw yesterday about public support was very interesting. My conclusion was we just need to pay more attention to what these surveys are showing us about how to deliver our message. I think we probably will see modest gains in resources over the next few years as we get more effective in explaining to the public what we’re all about.

John Arango:
But I don’t think that we’re ever going to be dramatically larger than we are now. I think my experience for example with the Peace Corps, with civil legal services, with programs for kids with disabilities, is there’s a limited period in which you can really push and grow. Then everybody — Congress, the administration, the public — gets used to a program of a size that you’ve managed to achieve in a short run period of growth, and it’s really really hard to get much bigger than that. The only reason legal services got bigger is we figured out other ways of raising money: IOLTA, private contributions, state funds.

John Arango:
I can remember when the Pennsylvania programs that were accepting state money were regarded as corrupt because they were taking money from the enemy. They were breaking the boundaries and federal funding, and this was horrible. Now everybody has state money. You can find new ways to exploit the possibility of getting a chunk of money. But once you’ve achieved that, whether it’s at the federal level or the state level, you’re pretty well that’s it. There may be a 10% variation due to economic circumstances, but you’re not going to get much bigger than that. Until we figure out an entirely new and unexpected way of raising money, we’re probably going to stay at about the same level as we’ve been now.

Alan Houseman:
Is there anything else you want to add?

John Arango:
Nope. Thank you.

Alan Houseman:
Okay, we’re done. Thank you.