ICS founder and President Rick Surpin was honored by the Medicare Rights Center at a gala dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle last month.
In remarks explaining the award, Medicare Rights Center President Joe Baker said:
Rick is a pioneer and a visionary leader. Long before “patient-centered” became a catchphrase, Rick was committed to making sure that those who are the most vulnerable because they may have a disability or have become frail with age—that care was really focused on them. He has been an innovator by being someone who has always listened to consumers, plan members and patients and asked – what do you need to live life to the fullest—not just to get better or be okay – but to actually live life fully.
There is a lot of lip service paid to consumer engagement and patient engagement and we see Rick as someone who has always engaged with each person, each consumer or patient, to create the right system, health plan, and workforce to meet their needs.
We also see him as a pioneer and visionary because he is someone who has really improved the patient experience and the worker experience in healthcare and who has always understood that those two things go hand in hand; he has always understood that we must do a better job for the people who need the most by focusing on them and focusing on the needs of the care workforce.
Our goal in honoring Rick is not only to highlight him but to hold up the organizations he has founded as models of what we really need to see more of, to replicate and to scale up.
A Quiet Man
“Rick has been an innovator by always listening to patients,” Baker adds. Now it’s our chance to listen to Rick.
In the latest episode of Independence Radio, Rick sat down for a conversation with host and ICS member Stephanie Wallace about his coming of age on Staten Island and the strands of personal experience that led him to create ICS and its two sister organizations, Cooperative Home Care Associates and PHI. All of the companies Rick has founded share a sense of community and bottom-up organization.
“One person can’t create an environment,” Rick says. “What I do as the director is create the boundaries for the environment. People fill the space—all sorts of people—and the bigger the organization, the more people fill the space. The wonderful staff at our Brooklyn office and the wonderful members who come to our programs—[they are] the spirit of the place.”
A self-described “quiet” man, Rick tells Stephanie this trait has given him a strength that enables him to lead by listening and paying close attention to what others are telling him. “What I always thought was a disadvantage of being quiet turned out to be, I think, a major advantage in life,” Rick says. “I always felt ‘on the outside.’ I hated how mean we can be as a society, and I always wanted to create a place that wasn’t like that and that could be a haven for people.”
One of the defining experiences of his life, he tells Stephanie, was his encounter as a young man with the notorious Willowbrook State School for people with developmental disabilities on his native Staten Island.
“My father had a business of selling food to restaurants and one of those places we made deliveries to was Willowbrook Developmental Center, which was infamous as the one-time largest institution for people with developmental disabilities in the country,” Rick says. “It has since been deinstitutionalized and doesn’t exist. I made deliveries there when I was in high school, and it was the most awful place I had ever been in…. Visual images of what life was like there had a deep impact on me.”
As a very young director of a community organization on Staten Island, Rick became involved with a group of parents who were actively working to deinstitutionalize Willowbrook. Together, they found places for the 1,000 residents who had no homes to go back to when the institution finally closed in 1987. Helping hundreds of people forgotten at Willowbrook to move back to their communities set the stage for Rick’s pioneering work at ICS to gain people with disabilities and the frail elderly independence to live at home outside of institutions. One of the earliest ICS members was a member of the Willowbrook class, Rick says.
Where Does ICS Come From?
In the spirit of the quiet man he has always been, Rick turns the tables on Stephanie right away in the podcast by answering her question about where ICS came from with a question about what ICS has done for her.
“ICS has had a tremendous impact on my life,” she answers. “I didn’t even know what ICS was but I knew that there was a social part…. In my mind, I imagined an adult day care facility full of old and broken people where they gave you slop for lunch, maybe. And you could crochet and glue stuff. And then I got there….
“There were things to do,” Stephanie continues. “Things that I was interested in. And I was seeing people who had disabilities but who were not broken – who were living. And I would leave ICS and I would always have these ideas firing off in my head. Oh, I wonder if I could do this. I wonder if I could do that. And it just made me alive again. And that’s how it’s changed my life and now I’m doing this – interviewing people and making podcasts.”
“And that is the best reason in the world to have an organization like this—your story and hopefully many other people’s stories,” Rick replies. “We wanted to create a place where people like you could be alive instead of broken and feeling broken. We’re not always successful, but we sure try hard to do that. There’s no other reason than that we wanted a place that was safe for us and safe for everybody else that’s part of this community….
“Your story is totally reflective of what we set out to do, what we try to do every day.”
For more of this enlightening conversation, go here.