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Membership Spotlight on Tami Lewis-Ahrendt: Tension, Transformation and Taking a Vacation

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Nicholas Addison Thomas

Director of Content Marketing, National Council for Behavioral Health

Membership Spotlight on Tami Lewis-Ahrendt: Tension, Transformation and Taking a Vacation

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In this membership spotlight, we talk with Tami Lewis-Ahrendt, executive vice president and COO of CenterPointe, about what it takes to run a treatment, rehabilitation and housing provider for homeless and low-income individuals in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Tell us about your organization. What role does CenterPointe play in the community?

“Our mission is to ‘help the people we serve get better, sooner, for longer,’ and we strive to do this in whatever way each individual needs and best responds. Every day, we see individuals who are homeless or without their basic needs met, as well as people who are struggling with mental health issues or seeking recovery from their addiction who don’t have access to adequate care. That’s where we come in. We have been involved in homeless interventions for decades.

“In Nebraska, we are one of the largest providers of supportive housing through HUD. We operate hundreds of site units of subsidized and supported housing, as well as a continuum of care that is co-occurring. It’s through our wide array of services, as an agency and a community, and the commitment to work together with other nonprofits, that we’ve reached functional zero for our veteran population and reduced our point-in-time count of homeless individuals by half in the past five years.”

How has CenterPointe adapted to address the shifting needs of its community?

“We always transform our business based on the needs of the people we serve. We treat people as people, not as diagnoses or problems. In 1988, we moved from being a substance treatment provider to a fully integrated co-occurring provider. CenterPointe has always taken a bio-psycho-social approach (not 12-Step) to delivering care, and we have moved into offering evidence-base practices like cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

“That decision was based on reviewing the makeup and needs of the people coming through our door. And in the early 1990s, we adopted the Housing First and partnered it with our Harm Reduction model that allow individuals to come to us exactly where they are, regardless of their stage of change or use. These adjustments have made us unique in our community and the greater treatment realm, and they have played a big role in our success. By staying agile as an organization, we can impact more people.”

What steps have you taken to increase access to care in your community?

“When I was participating in the Executive Leadership Program in 2014, I took on a stretch project that would transform our outpatient operations. I noticed people who needed us were lined up outside our door, daily, to try to get into one of two assessments we offered. I began to look around at the system and saw these same people waiting in lines all over town. For food. For medical care. For benefits. For everything. I didn’t want CenterPointe to be one more place where people had to wait in line.

“We had already done the Open Access Learning Community with MTM Services, and I believed it was possible. After a 60 percent turnover of staff in our outpatient programs and dozens of logistics meetings, we got there. On January 2, 2018, our outpatient location opened its doors as ‘fully open access.’ The result: We doubled the number of people we could see and have an almost zero no-show rate. Knowing the individuals we serve have one less line to stand in, and that there is one less messy situation in our business model, fires my passion!”

How do you manage the tension between generating revenue and doing good?

“Helping our staff understand the balance between business and mission is challenging. Our desire to help people, and our need to generate revenue to sustain operations, can create tension. I work to communicate that while money is part of the motivation to provide services, there are more important considerations: Are we providing ample service? Are we keeping our facilities at capacity? Is every bed full at night? Are care managers providing maximum visits? Yes, we need to generate revenue to stay operational, but more importantly, we are here to provide services to the people who need us.”

What piece of advice would you like to give other leaders in the behavioral health space?

“Always focus on the ‘why.’ When you keep your eyes on the reason you do what you do, you can create a clearer path to what you want or need. And take a vacation! You probably need one.”