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Behavioral Healthcare Champion: Matt Dammeyer

June 12, 2015
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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Matt Dammeyer

Matt Dammeyer, PhD

Chief Operating Officer

Central Peninsula Hospital

Soldotna, Alaska



When the Central Peninsula Hospital in rural Alaska got a second chance to offer substance abuse inpatient treatment, administrators relied on the vision of Matt Dammeyer, PhD, who came on board to make the transformation in 2003.  With his clinical and business background, he was able to relaunch the unit, making critical improvements after the hospital’s first attempt had failed financially.

Dammeyer says at the time, there wasn’t enough volume to support the ongoing operation and the services were in danger of crumbling all together. The behavioral unit in the not-for-profit hospital —hours away from any other acute-care facility—could only afford to treat SUD patients with insurance coverage.

“I argued that they needed to abandon that way of thinking,” he says. “I wanted the facility to be attractive to a person who could choose to fly somewhere to get their treatment or somebody who had zero economic resources. If you hold the bar up high enough, you can attract everyone.”

Outcomes focus

With $1 million in hard-earned grant money, the organization began a new chapter, which included the purchase of a 40-acre property with a large building that Dammeyer says was perfect for residential SUD services. It’s now the permanent location of Serenity House.

In the relaunch, what was different was the improved way of thinking, which was not focused on the aesthetics or the location, but on the necessity of positive outcomes. Every dime had to be invested in the ultimate goal of the patients’ long term recovery.

“Society is more than willing to pay to help people with substance abuse problems, but they have to see empirical evidence that it works,” Dammeyer says. “The money will come if you produce outcomes.”

Early on , he spent 95 percent of his time seeing patients to help keep the unit lean, and he often worried that every patient he saw might be the last. He made sure everyone knew good outcomes were the ultimate key to financial stability.  In fact, during intake,  he would candidly tell the patients themselves how earnestly the care teams expected positive outcomes.

“We tell people ‘all you need is to be able to pay for services or to give us a good clinical outcome—one or preferably both of those things,’” he says.

And he is quite serious about the reinforcement of that focus on patients. They know the care teams will do whatever it takes, but there is mutual agreement that the patients need to work just as hard.

“It was very successful for us, but after awhile the word gets out and the clients start coming to you,” Dammeyer says. “People are so hungry for real outcomes, they are willing to back up what they say with intensity.”

New day

By 2010, Central Peninsula Hospital’s behavioral service unit was stable and producing the kind of outcomes that draw attention. One year post-treatment, at least half the patients were not using substances. Today, 16 former patients have gone on beyond recovery to complete their education and work for the hospital.

Dammeyer recommends that behavioral health professionals shift their focus to outcomes—not anecdotal stories but empirical clinical outcomes—to determine whether their programs are successful. By chasing outcomes exclusively, programs will change the conversation from asking for more money and resources to demonstrating scientific proof of value. It’s a more honest point of reference.

“I hear anguish rather than innovation,” he says. “If you could guarantee eight out of 10 people with addiction positive outcomes—not just the easy cases but across the board—people will come flying in with all kinds of funding mechanisms to support that. And the burden is on us to get those clinical outcomes and admit to ourselves when we are not capable of it and then find ways to improve and build a model to reflect that.”

He believes more support can be gained in the industry as a whole if leaders would talk in terms of numbers and dollars as they relate to effectiveness and efficiency. Play for keeps and be honest about what you can or can’t deliver.

Dammeyer is now the chief operating officer at Central Peninsula, yet he still sees patients a few hours a week. He says he planned that and expects to see patients his entire career because he considers that on-the-ground experience to be invaluable.