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40 Years and Forward Thinking: Ashley Leaders Celebrate Anniversary and Chart Course Ahead

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As Ashley Addiction Treatment celebrates its 40th anniversary, executives of the longtime Maryland-based program are focused on pushing forward while remaining true to the values that have guided Ashley for 4 decades.

Although Ashley officially opened its doors in 1983, its roots reach back to 1964, when co-founders Father Joseph C. Martin and Lora “Mae” Abraham met during one of Martin’s “chalk talks” on addiction and wellness. The pair bonded over a shared mission to overcome the stigma of addiction and spread the message that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

Today, Ashley Addiction Treatment is a science-led provider with a staff of 320 employees, and has served more than 55,000 patients. Recently, Alex Denstman and Greg Hobelman, MD, MPH, the organization’s co-CEOs and presidents, spoke with Behavioral Healthcare Executive to reflect on Ashley’s 40 years as a driving force in the field, the importance of research, and their goals for continuing to advance substance use disorder (SUD) treatment.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Behavioral Healthcare Executive: As you reflect on Ashley’s 40th anniversary, as well as your respective tenures with the organization, what are you most proud of?

Alex Denstman: In terms of our tenures, I am proud of our staff’s ability to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic thoughtfully, effectively, and safely, without any disruption to our care and with a continual focus on quality and access. In terms of our organization’s 40 years, it’s hard to express in words how honored I feel to help lead at Ashley. We talk so often about our impact and the number of lives we’ve affected, but when we stop to reflect on the 55,000-plus patients who we have treated, plus their families, their co-workers, their neighbors, their communities—the overall impact is so vast and so meaningful.

Dr Greg Hobelmann: In addition to what Alex has noted, I am proud that we have been able to maintain the legacy of our founders, Father Martin and Mae Abraham, while evolving along with the field of substance use disorder treatment. We are proud to offer any treatment modality that will be helpful to the individual patient in our care, and our staff does so with dignity and respect.  There have certainly been challenges over the past few years, but our staff has remained dedicated, and we have made progress throughout that time. We have created a vision for Ashley’s future that is bold and achievable. 

BHE: Ashley Addiction Treatment is known not only for its treatment services, but also its research initiatives. How have those research efforts helped to shape the way Ashley treats patients and ultimately improve treatment outcomes? In what ways has Ashley Addiction Treatment’s research helped to change the addiction treatment field as a whole?

AD: Our focus is on growing in quality and influence, and research is the key to ensuring both. One of the most exciting parts about our research initiative is the opportunity for us to form meaningful partnerships, like that with faculty from Johns Hopkins. Our research and insight into our outcomes will answer two key questions: How can we make our care even more effective, and how do we commit more to those things that help the most? Those answers will guide our work and will hopefully prove very useful to other providers in the field.

GH: Outcome data and long-term studies in addiction treatment have lagged behind other areas of medicine, and we are working hard to catch up. Over the past few years, we have created a strong foundation for the future of research at Ashley. Our research department is robust and energetic. We work collaboratively with other institutions as well to share data and, hopefully, help direct improvements in care over time. We now use data to help direct the treatment of individuals in addition to helping us shape the future of treatment as a whole.

BHE: What is on the horizon for Ashley Addiction Treatment? What opportunities do you see for your organization to continue growing and evolving in the coming years?

AD: We are entering a 5-year strategic planning phase now. Again, the greatest emphasis is on quality and improving our model of care. Our other areas of focus are research, as noted, culture within the organization, and building a sustainable business model which will serve us for the next 40 years.

GH: The field of substance use disorder treatment is evolving rapidly, and we plan to not only stay at the forefront but also to innovate. We believe in placing the greatest emphasis on quality of care. If we can provide the highest quality of care, patient outcomes will improve. In addition, through our research initiatives, we will hopefully play a role in shaping the future of the field of SUD treatment. As we do this, we will continue to treat all patients with dignity and respect, as our founders did when they opened Ashley 40 years ago. We will continue to provide the nourishing environment of care that is so essential to healing, and we will work hard to create a sustainable model that will serve us well into the future.

 BHE: Is there anything else you would like to mention that we have not yet touched on?

AD: I don’t know of any provider of our type that isn’t facing challenges right now. In fact, I’ve found a variety of challenges we face, from workforce shortages, to too little demand for services, to rising costs, to name a few. I think this is an important period for our field as we’re all trying to adapt effectively and position our organizations to meet the massive demand for behavioral healthcare, which so clearly exists. Thank you to everyone who has wished us well in meeting this important milestone.

GH: I am encouraged to see a greater emphasis on substance use disorder treatment and behavioral health in general. Quality treatment can improve an individual’s quality of life and reduce the societal burden of SUD and mental illness, but we have a long way to go to have a significant impact. I hope that we can realize this opportunity and make great strides in the decades to come.

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