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NAATP: On the comeback trail

February 19, 2014
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Michael Walsh MS, CAP

For years, behavioral health professionals have sought to build resilience in those they serve – the ability to learn from adversity and utilize inner strengths to continue forward.

NAATP – The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers – has at times had more than its share of adversity. But it started with a bright promise in 1978, following a decade when Americans learned about the depth of the nation’s alcohol and substance abuse problems, a topic first broached politically by former Iowa Senator Harold Hughes in 1969, then amplified by former First Lady Betty Ford in 1975.

Under the leadership of Bob Scott, M.Div., and its board of directors, NAATP became self supporting through a dues-paying membership structure. In June 1980, the group’s first full-time leader, Michael Q. Ford, stepped in. With him came rapid growth as NAATP attracted more than 650 member organizations in 45 states by 1988.

But the 1990s brought painful changes for the private treatment organizations served by NAATP. The rise of managed behavioral healthcare prompted a steep drop in patient census and forced the closure of a significant number of organizations. When Ford stepped down in early 1992, NAATP turned to Ronald Hunsicker, D.Min., who led a diminished membership through its toughest period and into the new healthcare battles of the 2000s.

Only months after celebrating the release of interim regulations for the long-awaited Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), NAATP members were shocked on the eve of their 2010 conference to learn that Hunsicker, their longtime leader, was fired by the board after being implicated in a funds-misappropriation scandal. For more than two years, NAATP labored on, rebuilding its charter and its integrity under the interim leadership of Dennis Gilhousen, the former CEO of of Valley Hope, and Karen Carpenter-Palumbo, a former New York State treatment official who moved on after just seven months in the top job.

After so much turmoil, and in the midst of fast-moving changes in the nation’s healthcare agenda, NAATP members and industry observers greeted the appointment of former treatment executive and interventionist Michael Walsh MS, CAP as NAATP’s fourth President and CEO in August 2012 with a mix of welcome and worry.

Some 18 months on, it appears that Walsh has found his stride. He has engaged the support of an experienced board, heard the needs of concerned member organizations, and through dozens of talks nationwide has emerged as a national voice for the cause of addiction treatment. His passionate, straightforward approach has helped NAATP cement new ties on Capitol Hill, strengthen its place in the broad national coalition supporting parity, address evolving clinical and ethical issues in treatment, and reassert the value of NAATP to a  once-again growing membership.

The change in the organization is significant. "I can recall board meetings where there was a lot of talk about what was being done to us," said Jim Moore, president and CEO of Cumberland Heights (Nashville, Tenn.) and a longtime NAATP board member. "Now, the conversation is a lot more about what it is that we are going to do, where we can have an impact."

Straight from the heart

NAATP CEO Michael Walsh speaks from the heart, with the honesty of a person who understands treatment and recovery - intellectually and personally. “It’s an exciting time to be in the field,” he told Behavioral Healthcare, noting that “one need only look at the costs and impacts of addiction to see that it’s costing our society a lot, in everything from jails and social services to healthcare and productivity in the workplace. It’s time," he asserted, "for this country to have an honest conversation about addiction.”

Over the past year, Walsh has done all he could to advance that conversation, having spoken to dozens of healthcare organizations nationwide. At the same time, NAATP is continuing its role as a hub for organizational networking, information exchange, and innovative advances in addiction treatment. In time, Walsh would like to see what he calls “the small conversation” about recognizing and treating addiction evolve into a larger conversation about the disproportionate role that it plays in the nation’s larger healthcare crisis.

But in the meantime, there are other fights to win. Walsh’s tenure to date has been shaped by the national fight to shape the future of addiction treatment benefits in the enabling regulations for the Affordable Care Act and the MHPAEA, by running scientific debate about what constitutes "good" addiction treatment, and by the need as he said, "to make NAATP membership stand for something" in the ways that its members market to and engage customers in treatment.

Nashville Summit: the like minded docs

Moore hosted what’s come to be called the “Nashville Summit” in 2012, a process that brought together NAATP CEOs and a number of medical directors – to reconsider the value of abstinence-based addiction treatment, particularly as new medication-assisted treatment (MAT) alternatives caught the eye of the payer community. “There was a feeling that abstinence as an alternative wasn’t getting equal time,” he explained.

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