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A part of something special

October 31, 2011
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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Talbott Recovery CEO reflects on a career spent advancing the management of patient care

Great partnerships require lots of things-complementary areas of expertise, similar goals, and in most cases, enough luck to bring the two parties together in the first place. For Ben Underwood, FACHE, CEO and co-founder of Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta, luck is what set him on an intersecting path with Dr. Douglas Talbott in the late 1960s.

But it took more than luck to turn the facility from one that mostly specialized in treating physicians to a nationally recognized provider of comprehensive treatment for addiction, dual diagnosis and related medical, psychological, psychiatric, spiritual and work-related problems.

That's why earlier this year Underwood was awarded the Nelson J. Bradley, MD, Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2011 National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) conference. While he was “humbly surprised” to receive the award, which is given annually to an individual whose lifetime has been committed to the cause of advancing addiction treatment, Underwood says it represents the “pinnacle” of a career that he first entered for a very simple reason: He liked helping people.

“Back then, many of our patients were in pretty bad shape-both psychiatrically and in terms of chemical dependence,” he recalls. “But when I drove home at night, I felt like I had been part of a process of change. It was very personally rewarding, and I still feel that way today.”

Underwood graduated from the University of Georgia and began his career in Atlanta in the 1960s-first as associate administrator at Northside Manor, then as president and CEO of the Metropolitan Psychiatric Center. He also served as president and CEO of Safe Centers, which operated chemical dependency programs around the southeast.

One day he received a call from a friend who described a presentation given by a physician who had “tremendous insight into the disease of chemical dependency.” After just a few meetings, he and Dr. Talbott decided to embark on an endeavor that would become the Talbott Recovery Program.

Initially, Talbott Recovery specialized in treating physicians with chemical dependency, with MDs representing between 75 and 80 percent of the population. They even earned a reputation as the place where “healers come to be healed.” But as the program grew, patients from all walks of life started receiving care.

From the beginning, Talbott handled the clinical side of the program while Underwood focused on management. Essentially, that meant finding and developing the resources to “deliver the level of care required” for effective patient treatment. As in any good partnership, Underwood says neither would have been quite as successful working alone, without the insight and involvement of the other.

“I couldn't have done it without [Dr. Talbott], and he says that he wouldn't have been able to put into action what he wanted had I not handled the administrative part,” he explains. “It took both of those pieces. We were just lucky to have been put together.”

Another important partnership resulted when Underwood got involved in NAATP in the late 1970s. There, he found a group of men and women “dedicated to advocating for good addiction treatment and making sure facilities understood what that meant.”

“I found [NAATP] to be a nice incubator for some very conscientious people to meet and share examples of things they were doing to improve treatment,” he says. “It was very refreshing.”

Underwood served as NAATP chairman from 1995 to 1997, during what he calls an “interesting time” due to the emergence of managed care. “We all had to learn how to position ourselves as treatment providers to keep our program integrity, but also negotiate reasonable rates with [managed care] organizations.”

During his term as chairman, NAATP formulated a managed care toolkit, a guide to help smaller members who did not have the same resources as larger agencies. In addition to serving on the Georgia Hospital Association (GHA) Board of Trustees for 10 years, he's also a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, and is board certified in healthcare management.

As a result of his tireless work in the field, Underwood is no stranger to recognition. He was awarded the American College of Addiction Treatment Administrator's Outstanding Achievement Award in 1992, and on behalf of Talbott Recovery, he accepted the James West, MD, Quality Improvement Award for clinical excellence in 2006. In 2007, he received the GHA Chairman's Award.

When asked about the accomplishments that earned him such recognition, Underwood modestly responds that any contribution he's made over the years has been as “one part” of many good, solid leadership teams.

In fact, he says he occasionally “pinches himself” at the thought of being included on same list of people who have received the Nelson J. Bradley, MD, Lifetime Achievement Award-an honor he calls “the epitome of an award in the addiction field.”

“It's probably the greatest thing I could have ever imagined happening,” he says. “I'm honored and grateful to the association, to Dr. Bradley, and to his colleagues for all the work they did. It's a big honor, it's a big deal, and I'm going to be pretty excited about it for a long time.”

Behavioral Healthcare 2011 October;31(7):48